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State of the Art/
Definition of Art

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State of the Art script

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Introduction (to top)

Good evening and welcome to “State of the Art.” I'm George Fluke and I've written the definition of art. If that sounds provocative or pretentious, well your right. But because of recent research and studies, sooner or later someone was going to do it. So why not an unknown artist from a small northern California County!

dollar_sign.gifWhat I'm talking about is taking what we know about Art, as artists and audience, and squaring that with the latest scientific discoveries about how the  human mind works. Understand that I'm not judging good or bad, or taking ownership of Art, only defining what must be contained in anything that we call Art. And I certainly don't want to be seen as some kind of soup Nazi character saying “No Art for you, no Art for you.” It's just now that we know how and why Art works, why should we accept less?

The reason I'm doing this is to defend the purity of Art. There are people out there, calling themselves artists, who are cheating. And I believe this cheating has helped to fuel the anti-intellectual crassness of popular culture. These artists work under economic pressures which naturally lead to the lowest common denominator, so is it any wonder that mass media expression focuses on  fear? Well, sex and fear anyway. Fear of death, fear of our fellow humans, and the most insidious fear mongering, nostalgia, the fear of future Art!

Society-of-the-spectacle.gifBut shouldn't the arts be inspiring the greater good of society? Shouldn't an institution built on imagination be an imaginative, and positive force, and not just a vehicle of commerce? The implications are important, because the breadth of the Art that can be made and enjoyed by a society, is a reflection of the knowledge and expectations of its citizens. What kind of artistic inspiration can overcome a culture raised on instant gratification?

Don't get me wrong, I think it's fine that prepubescents have their Hanna Montana's and American Idols, so long as they can look up to their older siblings, parents, and to society around them, and see that Art is more than a popularity contest, beauty pageant or talent show. The future I fear, is corporate media pushing aside what is truly Art, in pursuit of the adolescent interests of teenagers with money to burn.

Looking around at our society, Art is not the only institution that's been corrupted,but it is the one I'm most associated with, so this is the house I'm cleaning. And although I stand by my definition it is the idea that we should stand by the principals that define Art that is the main point. And this argument can be used to defend all political associations, which is what Art is, against those who seek power by trying to change how we define, thereby changing what we value in those institutions.

Tonight we will journey back to the evolutionary origins of Art, to shed light on what and why Art is, and why we need to protect it. To unlock it's mystery without undermining its allure. It's a lot to get through in one night, so to set the pace and provide a moment of introspection between acts, is classical guitarist Andrew Ohren.

The Need for a Definition (to top)

moon%20land%20lego.gifIf we agree on anything. If you leave here understanding just one thing, it should be that Art does exist, and so deserves its own objective and unambiguous definition. This is America! If we can put a man on the moon, we can define Art! And even if we can only fake a moon landing, we can still do better than Webster's, which defines Art as something done artfully. That's like saying, life is something you do while you're alive. And yes that is how Webster's defines life.

But by anyones definition, Art is one of the most pervasive forces in human history, and so the absence of a clear definition is either a careless omission, or a deliberate tiptoeing around an uncomfortable reality. I believe the latter. Those of us who work in the fields of Art, don't necessarily want to judge, or define, we just want to make a buck! And so by default, the definition of Art has become whatever sells! And in our attempt to be politically correct and nonjudgmental, we have let go of standards and expectations that had distinguished our Artistic expressions. We have allowed that Art is in the eye of the beholder and anyone using media commonly associated with the Arts, an Artist! What woosie bullshit that is! This anything goes attitude cannot possibly add to our understanding or appreciation of anything that is Art, but it does open the door to the gratuitous and egotistical, the button pushing and trite nostalgia passing as Art, to dominate and debase our popular culture.

In the past, I've considered it enough to argue on technical grounds, either something is, or is not, as advertised, either something does, or does not, meet criteria. But in the last few years I've come to see that there is much more at stake than settling a debate, because how you define something determines what you value, and what you honor. And I've also come to see that the lack of a definition is part of a trend in society; the privatizing of public institutions. The proponents of privatizing have made the argument that efficiency in the delivery of services should be the main goal of government, and that competition between private companies can achieve this. On the other hand, Aristotle, and our founding fathers believed that the purpose of government was to make us better citizens, and that the best way to achieve this is to support institutions based on purpose and need, staffed by those who best exemplify the virtues defined by said purpose. You see, thats the definition of decorum, which is what we honor.

Art is a part of a wide range of political associations that have honorific aspects. Medals on soldiers, judicial appointments for lawyers, Nobel prizes for scientists, and Pulitzers for journalists. And although there are public awards for entertainment categories of Art, the fine Arts are honored by being given gallery space. It could be said that gallery walls only exist to honor those who excel in the virtues of Art, and so we need a definition in order to know what those virtues are. We honor those who show self sacrifice, not self enrichment, because thats how a society builds solidarity, the sense that we are all in this together. Mercenary soldiers don't deserve medals, they do it for the money, and Rupert Murdock certainly doesn't deserve a Pulitzer. Privatizing public institutions destroys solidarity by making it all about you and your needs instead of us and our needs. And those who seek private, personal definitions steal from all of us by removing honor from public life. 

first_amendment.gifWe know about The Constitution and Bill of Rights. But what about a bill of responsibilities? Well you can't have one because you could never codify every rule you need to live your life. We learn our responsibilities and proper behavior by practice. The right that protects my line of work is the first amendment. Under the protection of free speech, don't we expect people to be saying something? So why should we accept less of someone calling themselves an Artist? And though we cannot expect every work of Art to be personally relevant to everyone, we can demand that anyone seeking the shelter of Artistic expression, to be producing Art. We need a definition!

Origins (to top) monkey%20to%20man.gif

Do I need to say it? Art is an unusual business, so unlike any other. There is no clear progression leading to a stable career. As if an Artist could even follow a linear path. The first obstacle we have to overcome is everyone telling us you'll never be successful, until you're dead! So we all jump in blindly and sacrifice disproportional to other occupations. Consider this: how many CPA wannabes do you think would wait tables for 20 years hoping for a chance to add numbers? I say none. But for an Artist it would be a small price to pay considering the rewards of the personal satisfaction and public honors for being able to control this most mysterious phenomenon.

Before we get to the definition, we need to understand the origins of Art, and why it has been so mysterious.

communication.gifSome simply state that Art is communication, and I wouldn't deny that. But true as it is, it means less as a measure of Art when you consider the amazing fact that all life forms communicate! And though man is the only animal that produces Art naturally, what the Artist and the amoeba share in common is the expression of their state of being. This is the perspective of our original instincts. I'll explain later in the show. Fortunately we've evolved beyond single cells through the phylum know as chordates, which gave us lateralization body forms, that is, bodies and brains of mirror image. It is this particular evolution giving us redundant brain structures, that enables us to communicate from two very different standpoints.

We also attribute particular behavior to each; male type for the left and female on the right. And even though the physical difference between each are minor, they manifest as behavior differences because of the way they communicate. The way each takes in information and expresses itself. The left sees the world as linear, 2 + 2 = 4 Always! The right is holistic based, it takes into account what this 2 consists of and what that 2 consists of before determining a value.

Prior to language being invented, a rudimentary form of Art was the only means that either hemisphere had with which to communicate. Our ancestors had grunts and pantomime, which eventually became symbols. But when these symbols were strung together, the left hemisphere with its linear based reasoning, became the natural evolutionary choice in which to build the language. And with language and writing fulfilling the need for precise communication, the corresponding areas of the right brain were free to specialize in metaphorical, non-verbal and non-linear communication.

malefemale.gifAnd it's no coincidence that the strongest traits of the right brain are the basis for the six criteria of my definition. Among these are aesthetics, holistic based reasoning, empathy, openness to novelty and the ease of sensory expression. I know it sounds stereotypical, but get over it! Men and Women are different, and these are feminine traits. Though anyone with a complete brain can partake in them.

But as we try to express in words, concepts based on these traits, we run up against a mental wall. The right brain has poor language skills. And though we feel sure of what we wish to express, it never really rings as true or accurate when translated through the left brain into words. This is frustrating. It leaves us with a sense that there must be some things that can't be captured or constrained by humans. Something elusive, ethereal, something spiritual. This is what drives Artists to construct the best possible imagery with which to convey these feelings.

And so with the mental machinery in place, public acceptance of Art and feminine traits, and without the government or religious interference of the past, we now have the means and opportunity to express any concept or value, and prove that a picture really is worth a thousand words.

The Definition (to top)

Vague snippets of definition have always circulated, but they have relied on expressing the feelings one gets, or the worth of Art, and so are subjective. Years ago I had my own subjective definition, the type that Artists feel compelled to spout, which tend to say more about our own personality and public image, than about the actual work. But then I saw clues that there could be an objective definition, one that could be universally applied to all forms of Art. To put it together, I've used scientific evidence of what actually happens in our mind when observing Art, and my definition is simply a description of that process.

You see, I've learned more about Art from reading science journals, than from any bumbling docent leading a sleepwalking tour through a museum. Not that its a complete waste of time, after all, how can you understand anything about Art if you don't know about the Artist, and his extramarital affairs, the New Age religious beliefs or that disfiguring injury that forced the Artist to hold his paintbrush at such a contorted angle!

But seriously, don't we obsess way to much on personalities? In the last 30 years, we've gone from 15 minutes of fame based on Artistic Merit, to 24 hour news based on the foibles of those who are famous, simply for being famous. And the further down this road we go, the more Art seems to be about who can shock or debase themselves enough to gain publicity!

I'm sure most of you have felt assaulted at sometime or another by this lack of decorum and simply been dismissive of these wannabes and pretenders, but my life is all about Art, and so when it happens in my world, I feel morally compelled to point my finger and say: "That is not Art!" And to back me up, I've compiled the work of many behavioral and cognitive scientists, and so it is on their shoulders that I stand when I present the definition of Art.

It is...

Aesthetic composition, with enough cultural familiarity to elicit empathy, until the novelty of the theme draws you into conscious focus, in an attempt to reconcile the senses.

The definition is printed in your program, so I hope you'll take it home and think about it. I've identified six criteria which represent the order and the steps that Art takes us. I've paired their headings in order to shade their meaning, so that we wouldn't get hung up on an absolute understanding of any particular word because that is sooo left brain.

The criteria are: Aesthetic/Composition, Cultural/Familiar, Empathy/Curiosity, Novelty/Surprise, Theme/Concept, Sensory/Stimulus.

I know a lot of these ideas are might be new to most of you, and it might be a little confusing, so think how humans communicate new ideas. We use analogies, a form of art, because they are metaphorical. Now here is some food for thought; I know artists can be flaky, and I been burned by some half-baked ideas that haven't risen to a palatable level. Now that I have brought us into the kitchen, here is a unique way to look at definitions. 

Open any cookbook and you will see the prime dichotomy of left brain / right brain. Recipes are described in two ways. The list of ingredients, which corresponds to the linear left brain, and the directions, which describe the process of creating the dish, the holistic right brain point of view. If you are a fan of the food network and follow Alton Brown, you might be able to just take the list of ingredients and cook a meal. But for most of us that would be impossible! Thats the trap that Art critics have put us in.

Without a description or a theory of a process, we are left with a list of criteria which can only grow to include everything ever associated with art. Its a misguided egalitarian attempt to level the outcome, to make everyone an artist. The more absurd critics have claimed art is anything with a frame around it, or anything on a pedestal, or anything that someone who has previously claimed something to be art, proclaims it to be! Reductio ad absurdum! Its a circular argument that makes art about anything and everything, and therefore about nothing in particular. 

The Criteria (to top)

Aesthetic/Composition (to top)

The first impression you get of any thing, any scene, any object, is it's aesthetic composition. It's nice when life is full of pleasant sights and sounds, but can everything be Art? Of course not, and it doesn't matter . We need decoration, illustration, craft. But an Artist goes beyond, by using the tools of Art to take an image at its face value, twist it, and serve it back in an unexpected form.  These tools are Irony, Simile, Metaphor, Satire and the juxtaposition of the senses. I'm calling the impressions one gets of an image after it's been worked on by the tools, the forms of Art.

fredy.gif freddy%20with%20sign.gifI critiqued Freddy earlier for not being Art.  What I mean is he is just wall decoration.  I'll go to the tool box and change that... by adding the "Draw Me" sign, I've added the satiric message, "You too can be an artist by copying this cartoon!"

These forms are ghosts of our unspoken cognition. Superimposed on the face value composition.

Cultural/Familiar (to top)

world.gifArt may not even happen if the viewer isn't grounded in the same culture as the Artist. Of course there are images and rhythms that all peoples can relate to, but then there are jokes that only Quincy residents would laugh at . And yes, jokes are a form of Art, and when we get the joke we know it. That's how instinctive all Art should be. And because no one wants to hear old jokes, they need to be closely coupled to the cultural events that spawned them. This same need to be relevant is what powers the feedback loop that we know as trends or fads or fashion...

Here are some extreme examples of Art and culture marching hand in hand toward an absurd conclusion.

Feudal Japan, a repressive society with no Art. Those silk screens are simply iconic illustrations. And architecture and clothing styles didn't change for over a thousand years! Then there is modern day Italy, the most dynamic and chaotic democracy on the planet. And a fashion industry out of control. I'm sure this must have changed, but as of 2007, the average Italian woman spent over $16000 a year on clothing. And that average probably doubles when you subtract the nuns and widows who will wear the same black dress the rest of their lives!

Somewhere between those examples is a balance that a culture can sustain. A balance between when to abandon old ideas, and when to accept new.

Because when images, concepts or objects become so familiar that they attain symbolic importance, we call them icons or cliché; and so no longer serve as Art, But when they are fresh and new they exude a power of common recognition that propels the work, and reassures the viewer that understanding is within their grasp.

Empathy/Curiosity(to top)

Empathy is the ability to let your senses take you beyond your own identity. To care about  someone else's story as if it were your own. The Aesthetic/Composition and Cultural/Familiar can push your emotional buttons, but being pandered to with shock, fear or cliché in general, only reinforce your own pre-existing mind set. Thomas Kincade has made a fortune doing just that! If you are sold on an image at its face value, that is, without having been worked on by the tools, you response can only be based on how you feel about yourself.

Empathy is a learned behavior, a matter of practice, and when you build enough neural pathways, you are more able to change your point of view. This is what makes liberals so apt to flip-flop, and appear wishy-washy. But it is essential, because it is a curiosity to see from a different perspective that allows you to interpret a work of Art. 

swich.gifAnd we now know of the trigger which sets off the empathy circuit. I believe it works like this; what Irony, Simile, Metaphor, Satire and the juxtaposition of the the senses have in common, is that they make unlikely comparisons. They force you to see relationships beyond what you might equate as rational. And if you have the curiosity to buy into it, if you suspend belief that the comparison is not equal, the circuit gets set off. And in the instant your brain is tripping over itself trying to incorporate the dissonance, your sense of self, the brain area known as the precuneus, is resetting its paradigm. And the feeling of empathy, altruism or out of body, is the result of your sense of self letting go long enough to give you the illusion of being a detached observer.

In Art, as in life, there is always more than meets the eye, and in an empathetic state, the true nature of an Artistic vision becomes easier to see.

Novelty/Surprise(to top)

There is nothing new under the heavens! All the good ideas have been taken! If you follow the popular mass media of TV sitcoms, the endless string of boy bands, Hollywood movie re-makes, you might be justified in believing it true. But although it may sound counterintuitive, the more ideas we have circulating, the greater the opportunity for Art! Art needs the aesthetics, the themes, all of our cultural history, to use as a springboard to build future Art. Empathy/Curiosity only works when we build neural pathways between subjects which have never before been compared. But more, it is the unique and clever new ways of experiencing these concepts, the twist, that lifts Art above what is now passé.

Art is something that unsettles the current understanding of what the cliché represent. Something that hits that switch in your mind and says: wake up! Pay attention! This is new!

Theme/Concept (to top)

When Novelty/Surprise brings us to a state of conscious focus, we search for threads of continuity. Our brain is hard-wired to look for the who, what, where, and why, and the Art must at least appear to have a story on concept being communicated.

Theme/Concept is the flip side of aesthetic composition. It is the message presented by the forms of Art. That is, the impression you get after the tools of Art have worked on the face value of the Aesthetic/Composition.

Even I get confused! So here's my visual example: Suppose your Theme/Concept were “these shoes are comfortable.” You might present an Aesthetic/Composition of a young smiling woman wearing those shoes. But a smile doesn't necessarily mean comfort. Besides sitting on the moon, there is no focus. Though if she looked as if she were wearing clouds on her feet, you would instantly know what the subject was, and because she were smiling, your metaphorical mind would start associating any pleasant values you had of clouds, with shoes. Light and airy, soft and fluffy, and you know how they make you feel, “like I'm walking on air.”

And now as an aura of comfortable shoes hovers over this piece, the theme becomes clear.

Theme/Concept is the point being communicated but if it didn't stimulate, you may as well be reading an instruction manual for assembling Ikea furniture.

Which leads us to our last criteria...

Sensory/Stimulus (to top)

apples_oranges.gifI read an article years ago about how certain culinary Artists, otherwise known as cooks, were wanting to be classified with the fine Arts. After I stopped laughing, I realized that including the culinary Arts in my definition, was key to understanding how Art actually works. You see, they deal mainly with the two senses, smell and taste, that the fine Arts have ignored. And because of their function, they are already linked and somewhat confused. And thats it! Thats what Art does. It links the senses to each other and though metaphor, to create this swirling confusion of imagery. And like a puzzle we are challenged to find meaning in that imagery. Metaphors enable us to compare apples and oranges, attributing a specific value of any one thing, onto another. And with the juxtaposition of the senses, they carry more information that any single sense could on its own.

eye%20left.gifWe can see what someone is saying if we turn words into mental images, but we can also be more abstract. We can see the love in someones eyes, or get a taste of a song. Then there are those with a condition called synesthesia, where they continually associate particular numbers with particular colors, or colors with sounds, as if it were completely natural!

eye%20right.gifBut is it Art? This is my last and finest point. Art is not arbitrary, random or literal. The love in someones eyes is not a foreign object. The taste of a song is not the flavor of a plastic disk. And it also is not a Rorchach test to be individual interpreted. We absolutely must rely on comparing the common understanding of disparate objects, colors, or shapes etc. to build logical metaphors.

So is Art inteligible? Do we use our understanding of a well turned metaphor to arouse our senses? Or do we use that metaphor to arouse our senses in order to understand an inteligible Theme/Concept.

brain_diagram.gifThis is where we separate humans from amoebas and all other life forms. I believe Art is both intelligible and moral. Intelligible because it takes aquired knowledge to comprehend, and moral because communication is a two way street. And when you place yourself in front of art, of your own free will, you take on an implied obligation. You see, if we give into our original instincts, if we follow the urges of the primitive parts of our brain, the reptilian and limbic systems, we're not truly free. Because, when we let our senses guide us, its all about cause and effect, and not reason. It may be entertainment, but its not Art. Art carries moral weight because it involves free will in the uniquely human areas of our brain; the frontal cortex for storytelling, the right hemisphere areas corresponding to Wernicke's area for Concept/Theme, the Broca's area for context. And when you discern the particular message the Artist presents, you've made the proper judgment, and fulfilled the responsibility of the viewer to complete the communication. In other words, when you pick up a book or go to a theater, but especially when you visit a fine Art gallery, you assume an obligation to fulfill a social contract that the Artist has presented. 

Then again, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. 


Conclusion (to top)

Thank you for sticking it out tonight. I hope you've learned some things, been inspired, or at least entertained. As for myself, the definition and explanation served up in the show, have given me hope that the only thing we need in order to solve the problems of the world is Art! Hyperbole from an artist, yes.. but hear me out one more time.

    When you observe or create art, you are forced to use the means by which the right hemisphere operates. Again these are: Aesthetics, holistic based reasoning, empathy, openness to novelty, and ease of sensory expression. These traits also represent values that are highly regarded in a well rounded citizenry. These are traits that can moderate and balance public discourse and political debate. But they really can't be taught, they need to be practiced by experience, and that is the job of an Artist.

Art stretches you imagination, challenges your preconceived ideas, and forces you to develop an interconnected web of concepts to help interpret, metaphorically, what the artist is trying to say.  This is how you build your capacity to introspect, thereby developing your ability to empathize. I may be wrong but, isn't the inability to see another's point of view the biggest stumbling block to attaining world peace?

I see danger and a direct link between a society understanding only self-centered literal black and white views, and it's leaders phrasing everything as Good/Bad, Us/Them, Safe/Dangerous. Where is that full range of nuanced expression? Where is the sensual world? And if I'm correct, why hasn't Art been more effective? I believe its because we don't actually get the Art we are seeking. We live in a zero-sum world, and are awash in a sea of eye-candy. Bombarded by images with no sense of Art. They don't elicit introspection, and so none is given.

So how do we choose? Well, you've chosen to be here tonight, even though you might have stayed home and watched TV. There is good TV. You've just got to make choices that favor Art, and so you need to know what Art is. And you can't just grouse about the immaturity in common culture, we built it. Those are your kids snickering over pee-pee ca-ca jokes while wrapped up in a security blanket of electronic toys. But don't get me wrong, I don't say kill your television, I say fix it! The only way to stem the tide of sophmoric, low brow, fear mongering, button pushing, egotistical, gratuitous, trite nostalgic, sexually exploitive, guilty pleasure driven entertainment, is to reject it and demand Art! Steven Segal and Chuck Norris will probably kick my ass after the show, but I believe any Artistic value TV, Movies, video games have, is negated, when violence is the overriding theme. It is the entertainment that isn't Art, that is greasing the slippery slope to the bottom of the barrel.

But it's really no mystery what raises up an image to become Art, what triggers that process in you mind, because its something we've always known, but perhaps havn't held Artists accountable for recently. Art is about building images though the metaphoric tools, and as long as the world is in the shape its in, all that eye-candy is simply a distraction! I can't say it any clearer than; Art is the only means of power that the values of the liberal, feminine right brain have over the conservative, masculine, left brain dominated world. And we need all citizens to be fluent in the values of each hemisphere in order to make balanced choices. And I don't think I'm being too melodramatic when I warn; the future of our society, and increasingly, the stability of the planet rests on who wins the debates, and who wins is dependant on whether or not the right brain gets to speak!

And that's the State of the Art!

(to top)

©George Fluke 2011