Arts & Culture: Welcome!
Editor's Note: After increased student interest and initiation, The Commentator is excited to announce the introduction of a new "Arts & Culture" subsection, which will span selected content from both the features and opinions sections, and will have its own subsection inside our physical editions. Students interested in writing should reach out to us at email@example.com.
Welcome, Commentator readers, to the Arts and Culture sub-section! In order to properly introduce it, I thought it appropriate to release a manifesto of sorts which outlines our goals in opening a special area dedicated to the arts. To me, the goal is quite simple: to bring greater attention and awareness to the arts and to give artistically dedicated writers their own space to thrive. However, this seemingly simple goal takes many unanswered questions for granted. It assumes that the arts are genuinely important, and for the many practically-minded readers of The Commentator, that is not an assumption we can simply make. So let’s set out to answer three questions: What is art’s function? Why is art criticism and analysis important? And why do the arts need their own space to thrive?
The first question is the most important to answer since, as you will see, the answers to the latter two flow from the first. Now, a lot of ink has been spilled discussing and debating these questions, but both for my sake and for yours, I will delve into only two notions of art’s function: Romantic and linguistic. (If you would like to have a more in-depth look at art theory, I suggest looking here.)
I am sure many of you are well-acquainted with Romantic notions of art’s importance. The phrases “art expands your horizons,” “art opens up new worlds” and similar clichés are heard in 10th-grade English classes far and wide. Art, to the Romantics, is a revolt against practicality; it is meant to take us out of the doldrums of everyday life, bringing us to a higher, transcendent plane. Although formally preceding the Romantic era, “The Defence of Poesy,” written by 16th-century poet Sir Philip Sidney, demonstrates a Romantic attitude toward art, stating that poetry’s “final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of,” and criticizes those who “cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry” as having “so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry.” However, such a transcendent function can also potentially have utilitarian benefits, as expressed two centuries later by Percy Bysshe Shelley in the similarly titled essay, “A Defense of Poetry.” He asserts that poetry brings civilizational progress through “lift[ing] the veil from the hidden beauty of the world” and that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
We can apply this train of thought to the aforementioned questions regarding criticism and creating specific areas for artistic expression. Romantic notions of art’s function devalue the role of the critic. If art is meant to engender a sublime experience, existing on a higher plane than everyday life, then why bring it down to earth through analysis in plain language? While criticism can be of some help in determining whether a piece of art has reached its exalted, transcendent goals, it cannot truly facilitate artistic appreciation, as one’s appreciation of Romantic art is mainly temperamental: You either “get it” or you don’t. Criticism and analysis will merely demean artistic forms that are meant to be self-sufficient. However, it is clear why art needs its own space in the Romantic view. For the arts to fulfill their goal of transcendence and civilizational progress, they must be separate from other topics, encountered on their own terms.
While the Romantic approach may appeal to artists already unsatisfied and bored with ordinary life, it does not provide much to the vast majority of people who are content with life on the ground, those who hate Wordsworth and think Shelley and Lord Byron were kooks. What role could art play in the world of ordinary people, as opposed to the world of transcendence and exalted progress? On this lower plane, art’s utility is linguistic. Often ideas and emotions are ineffable, unable to be expressed in everyday words. Art, whether it be poetry, literature, portraiture or any other form, fills that hole, providing the means for expressing what cannot be expressed formally. I find this true especially for expressing moral and philosophical ideas and concepts; artistic expression brings down to earth complicated concepts, making relatable and understandable many ideas that were previously only accessible to a select few. For example, Dostoevsky’s literature makes his themes dramatic, fascinating and incredibly human when they could have been dry, preachy and inaccessible had they merely been expressed in a theological or psychological treatise. Phrases such as “Kafkaesque” and “Shakespearean” show the central role that art plays in illuminating everyday life, giving us the language to capture what was previously ineffable.
The linguistic conception of art gives much power to the critic. It is the critic’s role to decipher artistic language and illuminate a given work’s content, helping art achieve its goal of expressing that which was previously inexpressible. Daniel Mendelsohn, in a New Yorker article titled “A Critic’s Manifesto,” asserts that “when operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in,” a critic’s function is “to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.” Critical analysis helps us understand art in a real, substantial manner, and this understanding allows us to revisit a work with greater appreciation and actually incorporate its message into our lives.
It is also clear why art needs its own space within the linguistic approach. The artistic process of creation, communication, translation and reimmersion that the artist, critic and audience play their role in is a highly delicate ecosystem that requires its own space to thrive. Art and criticism’s illumination of the world should be encountered on their own terms.
Now, whether one, both or neither of these approaches are appealing to you, I hope that the writing on display in the arts and culture sub-section will be inspiring, illuminating or at least interesting to The Commentator’s readers. In order for the section, as with any endeavor, to thrive, we will need passionate participants. So if you have an idea for an article, let it grow and please do not be afraid to write and submit it. I hope that we can build a thriving artistic community within The Commentator’s hallowed pages.
Photo Caption: Artistic expression brings down to earth complicated concepts, making relatable and understandable many ideas that were previously only accessible to few.
Photo Credit: Janko Ferlič / Unsplash