I read a great blog on art yesterday, by Paul Grecian. The subject was a play on the aural equivalent of the old adage, ‘if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it does it make a sound’. Paul takes the viewpoint that art is a human pursuit, and exists only when it has a human audience. “If there is no human to perceive it and translate the experience into an emotion, then there is no art” – I’m not so sure I subscribe to that idea, for a number of reasons.
I think art is a verb; art is something we do. The results of that process might be nice to look at, or not, or nice to listen to, but the essence of art is creating. The act of creating is where art lies, not the products of that process. And we are not at all the sole creators. An American Tree Sparrow calling the tune of the alpine country is as artful as Joshua Bell playing a Beethoven concerto. The dance of the Japanese Red Crowned Crane is glorious. A Bower bird’s building her nest? The song of the wolf pack over the frozen night air is as spell-binding as Aretha or Stevie on a good day, no? What distinguishes human art from the performances of our fellow creatures, other than our own ability (and endeavours) to relate to it?
Art is essentially play. When we talk of making music, it’s no coincidence we use the term ‘play‘. Play teaches us who we are. Play is expressive, creative and participatory. It’s also innate. Play is both personal and communal. Play, unlike work, comes from within, though it may be honed via external sources. Play is in this sense a medium through which expression occurs. Whether that play is Michael Jordan soaring 15’ through the air to dunk a basketball or Nureyev leaping across a stage, I see clear parallels. Animals play all the time; I’ve watched grown grizzly bears play tug-of-war with a stick they found floating in a river.
Paul asks “Maybe it is enough for the creator of a painting, sculpture, photograph, poem, to perceive the work for it to be art, but how much more is it art when there is a second, third, or ten million observers, readers, listeners”? I don’t believe an ‘audience‘ is requisite for art to exist, because I suspect when we use that term we’re framing it awfully anthropocentrically. A wider perspective might be useful.
John Muir wrote that we may ‘receive the good tidings of mountains‘. Many indigenous cultures hold the view that inter-species communication is not just a common occurrence, but the norm. Inupiat Indians, of the arctic north, believe their song to be well-received by the wolverines, ravens and other creatures they share the frozen country with. Tlingkit Indians, of the Pacific Northwest, tell us that ‘glaciers listen‘ or ‘mountains listen‘.
Does a greater audience make something ‘more art‘? I’m listening to Oumou Sangaré sing Djorolen as I write this post, a tune she recorded with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck – Listen to it here – Track #17. Most likely you’ve never heard of it, yet it’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard. Is the incessant, tawdry bellowing of Michael Bolton ‘more art‘ because his audience is far greater in number? American Idol is a TV show, it’s not a system by which we might seek to explore ‘art‘; if anything, I think we can make a reasonable argument that as our audience increases, the answer to ‘how much more is it art‘ would be a negative. Photography prints, for example, mass-produced and marketed via the Wal-mart world, are hardly ‘more art‘ than the hand-made, singly produced works of an artist in his/her home.
Have you ever seen the elephant art? The argument that the elephant needs to be trained to do this applies equally, I think, to people. I’ve taught guitar lessons for nearly 20 years now, and believe me, nobody picks up an instrument and plays music without some time and effort. Some folks spend tens of thousands of dollars, and more, attending schools to learn how to make art, yet we argue that elephants can’t paint like humans without training?
Some folks say that art is self-expression, though I think that’s a limiting perspective. We can’t even fully understand the ‘self‘, I’m not sure we can grapple with extensions of that concept just yet. But if art is indeed self-expression, then surely not just animals, but indeed all of nature, engage art. The cry of a the loon, the raucous Howler monkey, the dance of the bumblebee, etc, are most certainly communicative, very clearly expressive. But what of the fading light at sunset, or the storm clouds of a darkening mountain range? Are they not forms of expression? Isn’t fall color nature’s last hurrah? Or the frenetic boreal forest on a sunny spring morning isn’t an expression of the joy of life? The wither leaf voices a life well-lived, perhaps as profoundly as any blues tune might.
Perhaps the art of the wolf pack isn’t the art of humans, but possibly that is the reason both wolf packs and humans exist. Parameters, though, can be funny things, and shifting them, even slightly, can often illuminate things more clearly. Certainly the art of Paul Grecian (a fantastic photographer) isn’t the same as my photography either. Nor is my photography the same as my music. I think more likely we tend to frame things in an extraordinarily humanistic manner; the tireless human ego never lets us down, eh? 🙂 I might hazard that the bald eagle soaring overhead this afternoon looked down on myself, seated and eating my lunch on the back deck, and wondered why I wasn’t creating the same glorious circles his wheeling, informal glide carried him on, drafting the winds of the sky.