Thursday, January 22, 2009
Well for one thing, art is everywhere. Now I don't mean "everywhere" as in "everything or anything is art." What I mean is, we are surrounded by countless examples of art, every day, in countless aspects of our culture. Even when artistic or creative practice may seem strange, irrational or just plain silly (which indeed it is often believed to be, if stereotypes of the hippie-dippy or neurotic starving artist are any indication), the fruits of such labors are everywhere for us to see and evaluate for ourselves. Most of us, spiritual or not, have had moving experiences of art and can understand, at least to some degree, the persistent life of a truly great work that remains relevant and striking and meaningful, that transcends its original cultural context. In light of myriad examples and our own personal encounters with honest-to-goodness works of art, as well as seasoned artists and instructors willing and able to offer guidance and advice, it is easier for young aspiring artists to "fake it 'til they make it" (mimicking good habits of artistic practice, cultivating a self-image as a "creative type," and producing a lot of awful poetry or lopsided pottery before learning how to find their own voice and perfect their technique) without the problem of irony arising.
Unlike artists, however, today's practitioners of magic especially, and those who engage in serious prayer to a lesser degree, have the burden of striking out into the nonrational world of personal spiritual practice pretty much on their own, with very few experienced role models and even fewer widely-accepted examples of effective magical work to guide them. While it's no surprise when the work of a beginning artist sometimes flops or flounders, those first exploring magic and prayer are often quickly discouraged (by their own inner critics, if not more forcefully by the skepticism of others). A sense of situational or even cosmic irony can set in, as our circumstances or the Universe itself seem to brashly contradict our plans and perceptions. But in some ways, this feeling is not so much irony (despite Alanis Morissette positing otherwise), as it is frustration and doubt, and can be overcome with encouragement, self-discipline, persistence and patience.
On the other hand, I think deo would agree that when he speaks of irony, it is not the frustration of failed prayer or magic that he means, but the suspicion that even when spells and such seem to work, they do not work for the reasons we might believe. This can happen with art as well. Imagine, for example, that one night you and a friend decide to go out to a new club where live bands perform experimental jazz. Your friend sits there enraptured, apparently grooving to what, to you, sounds mostly like poorly-coordinated noise. You might wonder, "Is this really 'art'? Is my friend really having an aesthetic experience, or is he just 'fooling himself' into believing he is because of his expectations about jazz?" In order to answer these questions and put to rest this particular type of irony, we need to look more closely at the creative process itself and how it works, in science, in aesthetics, and in spiritual practices like prayer and magic.
The Scientific & Aesthetic Processes, With Helpful Visual Aids
In episode #38 of deo's Shadow, deo ponders the relationship between science and magic. He rightly comes to the conclusion that magic cannot hope to compete with science "on its own terms," that is, offering satisfying explanations for physical causal relationships in the material world. But he struggles to offer an alternative way of conceiving of magic (and, by extension, other kinds of creative spiritual practice like prayer), and from within this lacuna of adequate metaphor, irony--a sense that what we believe about the world is distinctly different from actual reality--is grudgingly born. In order to explore deo's scientific metaphor more closely, and discover a better theory for prayer and magic, I've made some charts. (Yes, that's right, charts. Aren't you impressed?)
This first chart (figure 1, left) is an illustration of the scientific method as it's most commonly understood and practiced. A scientist formulates an hypothesis that she wants to test, develops an experiment to test it, and gathers results by careful observation. From these results she works towards refining her original hypothesis, postulating about possible conclusions she can draw from her results, and the cycle begins again. The exact method of gathering results may vary, of course; sometimes, instead of setting up a particular experiment, a scientist (a biologist studying the behavior of black bears, for instance) may do observations in the field, recording events and their circumstances as they arise and from these compiling statistical data. But the process is essentially the same. If we think of the vertical axis of the chart as representing the continuum from the "mind-internal" realm of logic and abstract ideas to the "mind-external" world of physical reality, we can see that the scientific method cycles through both: the experiment and results of that experiment occur in the concrete, material world, while the scientist develops and later analyses her hypotheses using the rational, abstracting capacity of her conscious mind. Of course, the subconscious does play a role in the scientific process (albeit an oft ignored or underemphasized one), in getting the scientist from an abstract theory to a practical test of that theory, and again from the raw data of results to their hypothetical implications. But generally, the process of the scientific method focuses on the rational mind gaining theoretical knowledge about the physical world, moving primarily in a single direction, as shown.
This process works for science; however, a pictorial representation of the aesthetic process must be tweaked to suit (figure 2, right). One reason this is so, is the widely acknowledged fact that an "art object" (i.e. the physical painting, sculpture, text or performance) is not identical to the "work of art." Rather, a work of art must involve a person's aesthetic experience; in other words, an art object only becomes a "work of art" when it is engaged by a viewer (or listener, or what have you). In some ways, then, a work of art is always in flux, surfacing into realized existence when witnessed and then sinking back into a state of potential. (I realize this is a difficult concept to grasp, so some further examples might help. A musical score, for instance, is an art object, but it does not become a work of art until it is played, even if the musician himself is the only one around to hear it. Likewise, in my living room I have a whole shelfful of poetry books; the poems in these pages exist in a state of potential, as textual "art objects" lurking between the covers, but were I to open one of these books, flip to a page and read one of these poems, either silently or aloud, I would experience the poem as a "work of art." It helps to think of "art objects" as dense things that need to be "activated" like some science-fiction device, while the "works of art" are just that, works, activities, experiences that are going on.) Yet a work of art is not identical to or synonymous with a person's experience. The same work of art--the same song, story or drama--can be experienced in many different ways by different people, or even by the same person at different times and under different circumstances.
Thus we have an aesthetic process that is not a unidirectional cycle from abstract to concrete, internal to external, as we did with the scientific method. Instead, at each point in the aesthetic process, we have an intimate exchange. As an artist works to make a piece of art, he endeavors to move his own abstract ideas into the realm of the concrete, but as we explored in the last post, the concrete world of particulars has an equally strong influence on shaping the artist and his intentions. Meanwhile, a given art object will elicit experiences in those who witness it, but as we've already discussed, the experiences (past and present) of these witnesses will themselves influence the art object in transforming it into or engaging it as a work of art. In the creative process, the artist plays the part both of creator and witness as he shuffles and sidesteps towards a final product, sometimes allowing the medium of the work to guide him, and sometimes stepping back and evaluating his own experiences of the object to see whether or not he is expressing or communicating his intentions effectively. (Here we see how both interpretations of the relationship between artist and medium play a role in the process.) What we find is a fascinating, weaving triad of give-and-take (my Druidic self revels in this triple aspect!), and within all this, the "work of art" remains in a kind of misty state in the center, changing and responding, drifting in and out of realization.
Coming soon... "Spiritual Aesthetics: Part IV: Irony in Creative Practice"