In the history of philosophy and at the margins of popular culture there are questions that never seem to grow old, never seem to lose their relevance, and are always ready to take center stage—except for this one: what is art?
Unfortunately, this question has grown so old and decrepit, has become such an unseemly sight, that like many a poor elder, it has been shipped off to the nearest retirement house. Locked away in the facilities of conventional thought, happy to visit every now and then but never staying for too long, the issue originally at stake is not even recognizable as such. Consequently, the question remains abandoned and without an answer, that is, apart from the answer that the sheer existence of art makes in the face our ignorance or lack of interest.
If we are pressed on the issue, however, popular opinion always comes to the rescue with the idea that all art is “subjective,” completely unhinged from any general objectives and standards of authenticity. In this view, art boils down to whatever our whims would like it to be, a subjective wish or fantasy, a mere dream or passing meme, and there is no sense in talking about it. What good could possibly come from it?
The Subjectivistic Reduction of Art
As a purely “subjective artist,” however, I am stuck in a circle of narcissistic self-reflection. Completely centered on the personal and sentimental, I only retrace the narrow steps my ego can take running in its own hamster wheel and cage, or at the behest of my Master. Although apparently “free” of objective standards or a general measure of authenticity, I become a prisoner of my own narrow-mindedness chained to my limited personal experience.
Friedrich Nietzsche had already warned us about the subjective self-encystment that preys on the unconsciousness of the would-be artist, concluding that:
“to us the subjective artist is simply the bad artist, and since we demand above all, in every genre and range of art, a triumph over subjectivity, deliverance from the self, the silencing of every personal will and desire; since in fact, we cannot imagine the smallest genuine art work lacking objectivity and disinterested contemplation.”(Nietzsche 37)
Although the personal aspect can play a positive role in the creative process, the very transcendent nature of art forces us to look beyond the dimensions of personal feeling, to open up our private selves to an archetypal realm of universal human experience. Failing to transcend the personal, art simply becomes an instrument of ego, an accessory of my selfish goals and private interests.
As every artist knows, however, the experience of the creative force is quite the opposite; it is quick to turn the tables on ego and its sense of alienation. As my habitual self-centeredness dissolves and becomes its instrument, operating out of a center that is not my own. It bends my personal will to fulfill—not mine but its own—unknown goals and objectives. This is what characterizes most the effects of the creative spirit on our precious self: the sense of being “transported” or “displaced” (ékstasis) by the transcendental experience of creative being itself.
Carl Jung—who famously distinguished between the personal and collective unconscious as the difference between the subjective and objective psyche—also develops this general insight into the profoundly impersonal nature of art and its peculiar mode of transcendence:
“What is essential in a work of art is that it should rise far above the realm of personal life and speak from the spirit and heart of the poet as man to the spirit and heart of mankind. The personal aspect is a limitation— and even a sin—in the realm of art.”(CW15: 101¶156)
Going further, it is only when art becomes a purely personal affair that the opinion of a psychologist becomes increasingly relevant:
“When a form of art is primarily personal it deserves to be treated as if it were a neurosis. There may be some validity in the idea held by the Freudian school that artists without exception are narcissistic—by which is meant that they are undeveloped persons with infantile and auto-erotic traits. The statement is only valid, however, for the artist as a person, and has nothing to do with the man as an artist. In his capacity of artist he is neither auto-erotic, nor hetero-erotic, nor erotic in any sense. He is objective and impersonal—even inhuman—for as an artist he is his work, and not a human being.”(CW15: 101¶156)
The Objective Sense of Self in Creative Being Itself
Although Jung tends to undermine the function that Eros plays beyond the personal sphere, he means to emphasize the objective attitude that characterizes the artist who is “caught” by the impetus of the creative process. From the point of view of the creative spirit, therefore, the subjectivity of the individual alone cannot account for the true source of creativity. As Nietzsche also writes:
the reason being that the ‘subject’—the striving individual bent on furthering his egoistic purposes—can be thought of only as an enemy to art, never as its source. But to the extent that the subject is an artist he is already delivered from individual will and has become a medium through which the True Subject celebrates His redemption in illusion.(Nietzsche 41)
Rather than a burst of personal willfulness in the creative process, an objective sense of self seems to take over my activity. This is why I often speak in terms of creative being itself in contradistinction to my egocentric sense of self-being. In the grip of this objective center of the psyche, I no longer speak for myself alone but for the soul of the collective, what Nietzsche called above the True Subject of Art and its—no necessarily my own—redemption through a world of symbolic appearance. The narrow, privatized sense of self thus disappears as my ego gives way to the archetypal power of creative being itself which follows its own end and objective despite my own personal problems, often undermining my own personal creed or belief system by means of the unconscious.
To cite one last example, James Joyce also expresses the same insight into the objectivity of the creative process. For instance, he ends A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by evoking an image of the collective psyche which is mysteriously “caught” in the crucible of the self:
“O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”(318)
In Joyce’s imagery above, the “soul” is viewed as an instrument for heating and hammering out the primal incandescent matter of art, which is, in Joyce’s view, “the uncreated conscience of [the human] race.” What does he mean by that? That art is not merely the vehicle for an individual’s moral conscience, a matter of subjective valuation, but that its subject-matter is the collective conscience or ethical measure of humanity at large. Rather than containing a specific set of moral precepts or values, art is the historic form of consciousness with the measure to evaluate all values.
Finally, the celebrated “therapeutic” effect of art easily comes to light along this line. For it is precisely in its deliverance from the “me” form of consciousness, in this divestment of self, that the famous “healing” effect of art comes to us. Although the type of “healing” we can expect from art is not one to cure the illness of conscious existence, for this latter lasts as long as we remain alive and conscious of being. That is why the function of art is not to provide a self-help band-aid to blanket over the existential wound of being human. It is rather a celebration of this very wound, like an eye that cuts beneath the surface, which makes us feel most alive and perhaps a little less human, as the opening of the soul to the life of the infinite.