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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Art, language, and beauty. 24.VI.2004 00:23
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

The aim of art – of all, art but especially of linguistic arts, of literature, of poetry – is to express something larger than the piece itself. All art aspires to this, in fact, aspires to this; it cannot help but do so. The skill of the artist is to be able to draw out from the audience certain associations from the artwork, to make them think of that which is not explicitly included in the work, but is included implicitly.

Ultimately, this is most true of the arts of language, simply because of nature itself. Language acts as a web, each word associated with dozens, even hundreds of other words, each signifying something else, the totality of the associations making up the primary word’s definitions. At its core, the art of language is to craft a sentence of these associations, and take their aggregate as a larger meaning. For every word in a sentence, or in a poem, or in a book, each word conjures the spectre of a thousand others, to varying degrees, and it is these which form the experience of the book.

This interpretation can be shown to lead to the varying traditions of literary criticisms. In classical criticism, appreciation of literature is directly linked to education. This school of thought assumes there is, at the apex of literary learning, a common language, a common set of interwoven associations, superior to any other, which can be taught to those willing to learn. The ultimate in language-craft, then, is to write in the way most reflective of these associations, and anyone who studies literature sufficiently will be able to arrive at the same conclusion. A common set of language can exist, which will lead to commonality of writing and commonality of interpretation.

This is, of course, to some degree true. Much of the body of literature is self-referential, and the ignorance of the foundations of literary tradition has led to much of the reduced literary appreciation in modern society. It is impossible to appreciate much of even Shakespeare’s work without being familiar with the thousands of years of literature which preceded him. A single word can refer to another passage in another book, or even the entirety of an epic and all associated with that. The title of a book or a character therein has a greater multiplicity of linguistic associations than almost any other word. Many of these remain engrained in our consciousness, and the meanings of authors who employ them are preserved: there are few unfamiliar with the symbolism of Adam and Eve as primeval humans. What, though, of Antigone, or of Ariadne? And what of noble Oedipus reduced to a mere Freudian metaphor from the once evocative name standing for virtue, self-sacrifice, and the ultimate futility thereof?

As associations of language die, so does our power of interpretation of the works that employ them. This is true not only of literature, but of painting and sculpture as well: how can one feel the power of Leda and the Swan, or Laocoön and his Sons, without knowing the stories from which they flow? However, it can not be said either that a commonality of associations could be arrived at: even those most familiar with these stories will have associations different from one another, and no amount of education nor study can remove these. There is a too great diversity of stimuli in the world for a truly common language to be shared between even two people, let alone an entire society, let alone divergent societies spanning millennia.

It is from this realisation that the post-modern tradition stems: that the reader is a part of the art as an integral as the writer, if not more so. This claim has a fairly reasonable foundation: upon reading a book, its totality of associations emerges from the reader, not the writer. It is therefore reasonable to assume, since each person has a language of associations different from that of any other, perception of art cannot but be an individual experience. It is therefore true that no opinions, no true criticisms, can exist of art, because there is no commonality, no correctness, on which criticisms could draw.

The fallacy in this argument can, again, be exposed through the examination of the nature of language itself. It has been said, and it is true, that language is individual, and cannot be identical for any two people. It is easy to postulate, from this, that language is utterly independent for each person, but this is not true either. If private language such as this existed, there could be no communication at all, yet it is obvious that communication of associations exists: how else could one follow directions, or comprehend the events of a story? Though language cannot be identical, it has to be similar for it to constitute a language all: it must carry a commonality of symbols and associations that have high (but not total) degrees of similarity. It is because language functions as a web of associations that two people make speak languages which are not identical, but are the same. Of the billions of associations in one’s mind, millions may be disparate, but the commonality is still overwhelming. Language is a societal phenomenon with individual inflection: its total definition is individual, but its general definition is common. Thus neither the classical nor the post-modern interpretation can be correct: the truth lies in between, with both learned associations and synthetic ones being indispensable.

It is in understanding this, and in failure to understand its implications, that much of the success and failure of modern art lies. The success, of course, lies in its popularity: modern has proven to be largely popular with those who are not mired in the traditional definitions of art, and it is natural that this should be so. This is because modern art is devoid of association by its own nature; it presents images that hold no common associations to society, and are vague enough that there is nothing with which they cannot be associated. Thus, the artistry lies entirely with the audience: their associations are the only ones projected onto the work, and none of the artists. The art would be equally beautiful if generated from the void, or even merely imagined, or independent of any society, simply because it is the viewer whose associations are presented. And it is for this reason that modern art succeeds: anyone approaching modern artwork openly will find it speaks to him, but only because he is speaking to himself.

Obviously enough, this vacuum is also the failure of modern art. Art is created, and the process and though of creation is integral to it. Modern art, being devoid of association, fails to even be an expression: it does not express anything greater than itself, because it itself is nothing. The expression is that of the audience, and only of the audience, and thus the art itself aspires to nothing or, at the very least, fails to achieve to any degree any aspirations it may have had. This sort of art is not interpreted, but merely projected upon. To praise its ‘artists’ is as to see a painting, then to praise the maker of the canvas itself for its beauty. The truly brilliant masterworks of art are ones which conjure a plethora of associated concepts with a minimum of expression, yet are never so incomprehensible as to force the audience to create the entirety of meaning. A wide and subtle web is woven by high art, as opposed to a coarse and small one, or none at all.

For the most part, art is created which speaks to a society’s natural associations: ones which are acquired by most of the potential audience simply by their experience, or by a commonality of education, as is the case with mythological reference. However, most ‘revolutions’ in art are said to occur when a new set of associations is introduced. This was the case, in painting, with Picasso or Dali, whose visuals were evocative enough to create associations as rich and multifarious as that of any renaissance work, yet had enough seeming familiarity, though one could never quite put one’s finger on it, that they were not devoid of interpretation. In literature, a perfect example of such an ambition that overleapt itself is that of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Never has there been a book that so infuriatingly exposed the ignorance of its reader as compared to its writer. Yet, while being truly revolutionary in the scope of the evocation of its words, it fails in the respect that one cannot grasp even the majority of this association without happening to be James Joyce. The phonemic association, while instinctive to a degree in terms of cognate words, is utilised to a point where it cannot be grasped, and, with each word evoking so many others, it loses the natural associations of a sentence, that of one word with the words surrounding. While a revolution in terms of theoretical art, its impossibility of interpretation is the thing that has prevented it from being as celebrated as Ulysses, whose brilliance relies on both the learned associations of literary tradition and the synthetic associations of the natural stream of thought.

Yet the aspiration of Finnegan’s Wake is that which is purest to art, to express that which is immeasurable in something finite. This, too, is its failure, it expresses but fails to be interpreted because its web is so subtle, and so delicate, that to master some associations is to lose sight of, and break, others. While art must always aspire to that which is greater than itself, merely a quantity of expression is not the success of great art. There must be a balance of creation and interpretation, an understanding of the one’s own linguistic associations, of one’s society’s, and of one’s potential audience’s. Thus, through the power of certain words, which evoke untold thousands of others, can heaven in a wildflower be seen.
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