Essays on Art by Hugh Moss

Foreword

Edited by Sean Geer 25 January 2021  

 

What is art, and what is it for? After millennia of human creativity and the vast amount of art that they have produced, these may seem like questions that are barely worth asking – or at least, that have been satisfactorily addressed by audiences and critics over several centuries. 

I strongly disagree. Moreover, I'd argue that several factors – not least recent geo-political events and the global impact of the modern western revolution in the arts – are the root-cause of the current confusion in the art world, obscuring both the true nature and ultimate purpose of art. As a result, we're in danger of losing sight of art's most fundamental functions and benefits. Worse, we are depriving art of its freedom to fulfil its highest role, for artists and audience alike.

These factors have not, of course, prevented art from being made, nor stemmed the tide of creativity and visionary genius. Art remains one of our most important means of communication, one that inspires us at many different levels and across the bandwidth of human consciousness. But I also believe that it has been constrained for a long time, and that its true potential will only be fulfilled if we rethink most of our existing theories about what art really is and what it's really for. In particular, we need to revisit our view of the global turmoil caused by the modern revolution, and completely reassess its impact. And we also urgently need an art theory that is truly trans-cultural, not one governed by a dominantly western perspective.

The essays that follow have been written with exactly these reassessments in mind. In them, I outline the basic changes required to adjust our current theoretical approach; changes that will allow us to efficiently understand any art form, from any culture, at any point in time, from the same overarching perspective. One of the foundations of my theory is that we should expand our definition of art to include any creative response to experience, rather than relying on our existing prejudice about what is and isn't art.

This inclusive expansion of the domain of art allows us to consider another foundation of my theory; that creativity, the underlying definition of all arts, is our most efficient means of evolving our individual and collective consciousness. Few would argue against the notion that art leads inevitably to a more enlightened understanding of the self and its place in culture and civilisation; and thus eventually, life, the universe and indeed everything. Creativity is the basis of culture; culture, in turn, is the basis of civilisation. Without art we cannot build, sustain or even understand ourselves and our civilisations, one of the many reasons why humanity has always revered creative perception and expression in its manifold forms.

It is no coincidence that creative response to experience is what unifies all four of our central domains of our human experience – religion, philosophy, science and art. Significantly, though, art is the only one of the four capable of subsuming the other three. Science, religion and philosophy are all unquestionably vital tools for pursuing knowledge and understanding, but they have so far failed to deliver the Theory of Everything that their proponents once promised. Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place; and perhaps, by elevating art to equal stature, we might start to find some of the answers that we're still missing.

Many other foundational adjustments are presented in outline in the introduction, and I'll expand upon them in subsequent essays. By approaching the subject from different angles but viewing it through the same overarching theoretical framework, we can begin to clarify the current confusion that permeates the global art world.

I published the broader theory underlying my convictions in 2015.1 The same ideas are touched upon in an interview with Sean Geer in the recently published retrospective catalogue of my own paintings.2 Although many less complete iterations of the evolving theory have been published since the early 1980s in various sources.

I should add a note about my intent here. My aim is not to present academically rigorous essays, but instead to introduce and expand upon some important ideas that will get us to the heart of the problem faster, even if they are not exhaustively (not to mention exhaustingly) academic in tone and structure. Some of the ideas will inevitably be refined over time, and amended as appropriate; feedback is welcome by email or by using the feedback form in the menu on the left, this will give me an opportunity to respond to questions, clarify the overall message and make changes to the text where it makes sense to do so. Time dictates, particularly now that I have entered my eighties, that I be selective as to my response to feedback. But I welcome any and all contributions, and will do my best to address and incorporate useful comments. I should also add that you may well disagree with some or all of what I have to say; such is the nature of theorising, especially on a subject as emotionally complex as art. In that eventuality, by all means feel free to start your own series of essays! Many people have, but so far they don't seem to have resolved the confusion…

 

Introduction 

Edited by Sean Geer 25 January 2021

Art is a vital resource. Along with our three other quasi-autonomous domains of exploring meaning – namely, religion, philosophy and science – it is one of our most powerful means for improving our understanding of self and environment. As such, its role in our lives is not widely disputed. But its real nature, and its real importance to us, has rarely been described adequately by theorists or critics.

Long dissatisfied with widely accepted theories of art, I have been developing my own over the last several decades – one which seems to resolve the problems I encountered when considering commonly held views. It's a theory which is both trans-cultural and applicable to any art form, from any culture, at any point in time – a claim that is difficult to make for existing, widely-accepted theories. One of the reasons for this is that current art theory – based to a considerable extent on a resolutely western perspective and experience – illuminates parts of the whole but fails dramatically when exported, despite a greatly heightened awareness of trans-cultural matters in our recent past. Specifically, it fails to illuminate (or even comprehend) the precocious 'modernity' of 'traditional' Chinese art – a key aspect of understanding art from a global perspective, as I hope to demonstrate in these essays.

The primary pillar of my theory, and the one supporting all its other components, is simply this. Art is arguably our principal means of enhancing and evolving human consciousness. It is crucial to our civilisations and cultures – indeed, I would argue that they are not possible without it. Art, and the creativity that drives it, is perhaps our most useful tool for exploring and understanding our human selves and the dizzying variety of cultures and civilisations that we have created. For all its simplicity, this fundamental idea is extremely powerful. Once we understand it, we can easily see it as an overarching theory within which we can view all of art – whoever makes it, or wherever it is made – through the same lens.

A second critical step in constructing the broader theory is to expand our definition of art to include any form of creative response to experience. Then we can recognize that of our four main domains for evolving our consciousness – art, science, religion and philosophy – it is the only one capable of subsuming the other three. However structured and rigorous they appear, they are also all creative responses to experience. The downside of this more inclusive definition of art is minimal; it merely requires a secondary exercise in judging the level of meaning or significance of any creative exploration. The upside, on the other hand, is extensive.

Our third adjustment in our approach to art theory is to shift our focus from the art object itself to the entire artistic process. Today, most of the art world's attention remains resolutely on the products of art, whether they are paintings, sculptures, poems or symphonies. In such product-based aesthetics, the overall process is seen from a narrow perspective; the artist translates their visionary capacity into a physical work of art or performance of some kind, using their preferred acquired techniques to do so.

In this model, the physical work is seen as the end-product of the artistic process. The audience for that work is considered completely separate from the process; an observer and beneficiary, certainly, but not a full participant. Their only role is a post facto one – to try to reach backwards through the encoded languages of the physical work of art, in an attempt to grasp as much as possible of the artist's original vision and intent. This, of course, has been the principal approach to art in the west for centuries, for some apparently sound logical reasons. Faced with a painting or a poem created some time in the distant past, what else can one do but appreciate and analyse it after the fact?

The answer to this question is a simple but vital one. For any artwork created in any medium at any time, we can shift our perception of it from a product-based perspective to a fully process-based one. We do that by simply considering the art object itself as effectively the mid-point of the overall process, rather than the end-point. We then include the audience itself as the remaining half of the process; in effect, a mirror image of the artist's side of the art object. The audience then uses and refines its own techniques in approaching and understanding the object as an integral part of the process, rather than as a passive bystander.

This approach makes sense for all kinds of reasons, not least because the audience is of course crucial to the overall process from the outset. Artists tends to create their works with an audience in mind; without one, the incentive to create anything would be greatly diminished. Throughout history, artworks have been created for specific purposes and audiences, and often commissioned for specific occasions; many of the most famous works of classical music were created in just this way, as were countless paintings, statues and other objects. Their audience has inevitably changed over time, but an audience of some kind was always in the artist's mind.

Viewed this way, it becomes clearer that art objects are not a wall between the artist and the observer. Instead, they can be seen as a doorway or conduit. Even this analogy is misleading, though, because it fails to take into account the dual nature of the artist; on their side of the doorway, they are their own audience. Every act and aspect of creativity enlightens not just the audience but the artist too; at every stage of producing a work of art, the artist is involved in self-refinement of some kind. On the other side of the door, the audience continues the creative process of refining their own techniques and expanding their appreciative abilities. So instead of a series of discrete steps with finite outcomes, we now have a continuum of experience; a process that comprehensively blurs the line between artist and audience.

From this perspective, even the distinction between artist and audience starts to shimmer and evaporate. It becomes merely a low-level expression of a much bigger idea, in much the same way that organised religions are simply lower-level expressions of a higher spiritual source. Our myriad works of art and religious interpretations are much more readily understood once we recognise both as simply lower-level expressions of a higher purpose.

We can visualise the shift from object-based to process-based aesthetics in a simple flowchart:
Artistic vision → artistic techniques → art object → audience techniques → audience enlightenment
The entire process is the art. The end product is self-realisation or enlightenment (however we care to define that concept, of which more later) – not just for the audience, but for the artist too.

Here's a visual representation, not because we really need a chart to understand it but because, once drawn, it looks encouragingly like the cross-section of something that would actually float.

diagram1
Fig. 1


The horizontal line separates the visionary realm from its intellectual counterpart – the so-called reality that we live with on a daily basis. This is the 'glass ceiling' of consciousness.

A (above the line) represents the trans-intellectual, ineffable way of knowing; a visionary fount, if you like.
B (below it) represents the fragmentary realm of the intellect, the rational, reasoning faculties of mind.
C is the visionary capacity of the artist.
D is acquired artistic techniques.
E is the art object.
F represents audience techniques.
G is audience vision, taking the whole process back above our glass ceiling to unite with the transcendent realm. This is the goal of self-realisation, the thing that gives us access to the full bandwidth of consciousness and allows us to integrate our two ways of knowing. I'll have a lot more to say about this in later essays. For now, let me just say that this is a critical aspect of the theory I propose; the expansion and evolution of our consciousness towards Enlightenment, in its transcendent rather than relative sense.

These major shifts in our approach to art are crucial to overcoming confusion and misunderstandings about art throughout its history. They allow us to make sense of all the controversial, exciting art of the past century – the upturned urinals, unmade beds, sharks in formaldehyde, piles of builder's bricks, blank white canvases, silent music, conceptual art and much more. If we approach them not with a focus on the art object but on the entire process of art, we quickly find that they take on new meaning. Rather than focus on questions addressed to individual objects (Is this art? Do I like this? Does this really look like a horse?) we can start asking different and more enlightening ones. For example: how does considering our own spot on the artistic continuum change our overall understanding, not just of art but of ourselves, life, the universe and everything too? Are these changes incremental or fundamental? How has my relationship to the artist changed? There are no 'correct' answers; by changing the questions there is nothing left to argue about, although plenty to discuss.

In any culture, art has many levels. It addresses and codifies everything from the utterly banal to the ineffably mysterious and esoteric. In fact, it is essential that it does so; that is precisely how it offers us a valuable and efficient conduit between our two states of consciousness, the realm of the intellect and its transcendent counterpart. Art is not just civilising; it is civilisation. If you doubt this, try to imagine existence without music, literature, the visual and performing arts, without architecture. We don't just express with our arts, we think with them; and crucially, we store information and insight from one generation to the next in them. This cultural storage capacity is one of art's greatest tricks; it facilitates the accumulation of our collective understanding, in ways that mere words never can. Without them, civilisation is inconceivable. This is why art is one of our most efficient and profound means of communication. It's why it is of such enormous importance to us. And it's why we are, and always have been, so powerfully drawn to it. It is no surprise, then, that it is also why it has such disruptive potential.

Hugh Moss
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.

 

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