> I printed only the last line of your comment and I hope you were
> saying this with some degree of humor.
> Without thinking, art would not exist. Doesn't it all begin with an
> idea? Imitation is the beginning of learning was a theme for a
> Kodak pavillion back in the early sixties. I've often thought that
> was were we started teaching art.
Yep, that "I think" WAS a hint of sorts. I'd like to be serious about it,
so would a great many more of us but, in MY experience, the human
condition doesnt really allow it. I'll admit it, I'm pretty thoroughly
drenched in postmodernism. Don't confuse me for a first or second wave
Postmodern however. I refuse to be absolutist or certain about even
I simply have a perspective on this issue. I wish other people could
share it, so I'm willing to express my beliefs. I do not expect many to
agree with me and I am willing to concede that there are other positions;
some of them quite absolute and entrenched. I'm willing to argue the
points for the sake of argument, and sometimes its a bit too easy to sound
rather certain and absolute myself. That is not my wish or intent.
So, back to art and thought. Here's my thinking on the subject. (I may
have said some of this before)
First, if, through some catastrophe, an individual was born without a
"sensorium", without a set of nerves dedicated to sensual perception:
seeing, hearing, touching/pain, smell, and taste; I argue that that
individual would be unable to think. I believe that this argument should
probably apply to any living entity if only in the tinyiest degree but
lets confine ourselves to humans.
In simply cognitive terms, before we can survive on our own we need,
basically, to be able to perceive, to remember, and to evaluate. In
simple organisms this only means an ability to recognize nourishment and
threat, the absense of such qualities and sufficient sense of value to
allow the choice of nutrition and the choice of flight from threat. It
would not need, for example to distinguish one threat from another, or one
nutrient from another, or the absence of nutrition from the absence of
threat. Predators of such entities would not need to be significantly
More developed creatures have greater needs and comensurately greater
possibilities. And, if you think about it, we are beginning to discuss
proto-aesthetics. Baumgarten it was (So my Eaton tells me) who borrowed
the term aesthetics, meaning pertaining to the senses or sensory
perception, from the Greeks, to describe a "new" field he wished to
explore. Baumgarten also added the association of beauty with aesthetics
which, I feel overly complicates things. I would have prefered to
associate beauty with taste and leave sensory perception out of that
If we can, for the moment then, dispense with "beauty" here, in
association with aesthetics, we can proceed. Aesthetics (without a
concern for beauty understand) as I understand it, concerns itself with
destinguishing things and assigning value to those distinctions. It
matters little whether we are distinguishing Vermeer from van Gogh or one
Vermeer from another. It also matters little if we are discussing Burger
Kings hamburgers and Macdonalds hamburgers. It matters little, in the end
if your scale of evaluation has 10 positions in it and mine has only 4.
The point is, we can tell the difference between two things and prefer one
to another. Hopefully we are aware enough to be able to say WHY we have
such a preference or HOW we came to decide as we have. Our reasoning(s)
here are the things which describe the aesthetic system we have chosen.
I have, I notice, wandered rather far from the subject of thinking (and
my additional requirement "memory," which is the name which the Greeks
gave to the mother of the muses, by the way.) I should get back to that now.
"Without thinking, art would not exist. Doesn't it all begin with an
This is the idealist position, I believe. I have to ask where that idea
came from. If the idea is a portrait of a woman with a cetrtain smile,
one must a have perceived "women" as distinct from "men", smiles as
disinct from faces and teeth, and portraits from the side of a barn...
among other things. (so far, this conforms to your notion of imitiation,
by the way) If the idea is a "constitution" and you have never known a
constitution before in order to imitate it? I suspect you dip into your
memory anbd recall any number of "good things" which are related to the
problem your idea is responding to, (which puts "problem" prior to
imitation as the source of this particular idea) then synthesize and
correlate these "good things" into something in your head that you can
communicate and imitate on paper.
In any case, you need experiences which serve to demonstrate many things
which you can value and remember before you can even begin to think about
apples and goodness in the same sentence. You clearly do not need all of
the channels (seeing hearing touching smelling and tasting) -look at the
classic example of Hellen Keller- but you need some, MAYBE only one. I
Now the senses "lie" to us all the time. They are undependable. They tell
us that apples are solid objects. We believed this for centuries and
based much thought and many ideas on this belief. When we made machines
which began to look at smaller and smaller things and test their
behavior, science told us that that apple was composed mostly of "empty"
space betwen atoms. It doesn't look or feel like that, but so, we are
told, it IS.
When we began to believe that perception beyond the common sense one we
had to change our ideas on quite a number of things. After a while we had
Quantum physics which behaves quide differently than our familiar
commonsense Newtonian physics. But we had to PERCEIVE, DISTINGUISH, and VALUE
new things BEFORE anyone could have the notion of quantum physics. We had
to use aesthetics in order to form the possibility of a new idea.
Aesthetics comes before thought!
Well, maybe it doesn't but when will we ever know for sure? This model of
mine may already have been superceded. It may be seriously flawed,
inevitably it WILL be superceded and it will look very naive... but, just
now, it "looks interesting," it explains things in a useful manner
--especially if you want to argue for more money for art education! (Which
is why I keep poking at it, testing it, and exploring its implications and
Vincent Lanier told me in a class once that aesthetics was the key. That,
as art teachers, it was aesthetics we needed to concern ourselves with.
I didn't really believe it then but, more and more, I am beginning to.
But, where does ART come in, you ask. (you'd better ask!) Aesthetics is
crucial and central to our humanity and our thought (at least according
to this model I'm proposing) I'm afraid art shows up rather late. BUT...
DONT PANIC! (tm Douglas Adams) Art shows up in the nick of time, at
precisely the right time! Art shows up when our neocortex is developed
enough to allow complex thought, at a point, and at the times, where we
begin to have enough leisure to contemplate and to reflect. Art appears
as we begin to engage the existential questions, the spiritual questions,
as we begin to ask, as small children do on a rainy day.... "I'm bored,
there is nothing to do! What can I do NOW!!!"
Art responds to the most profound and human part of our beings. It also
responds to the most trivial aspects of being human.... an a wide
spectrum of issues in between. This is why we will never be able to say
what art FINALLY is. It fills in the gaps, provokes and answers
questions. It is the crown of our intelligence.
After ALL is said and DONE (read science) all that remains is
art/aesthetics. It gives us something fascinating when we are bored and it
is part of the "calculus" of those ineffable existential and spiritual
Of course, I'm rather prejudiced here. I acknowledge that there are
perspectives where this looks like "a load of dingo's kidneys" compared
to what must logically be so. Logic also says that Achilles will never
finish the race, being constrained to only halve the distance to the
finish line forever and ever.
I like this perspective and will continue to develop it until something
better comes along. Maybe or maybe not it will prove useful. I certainly
don't think everyone should toss out everything else and adapt to such a
philosophy. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of
in [my] philosophy."