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What Is Art For? - Maria Anna Potocka

The Genesis of the Present Sense of Art

Art results from our ‘surplus’ consciousness, something unknown in other species. We are the only biological species, which, on the one hand, is capable of describing its own existence, and, on the other, cannot be reconciled to it. This phenomenal tension is the genesis of numerous inventions, of various degrees of sophistication. The most important ones are magic, religions and art, but also alcohol. Quite primitive magic is meant to control fate. In turn, religions mythologise human importance and demand eternity on our behalf. Art has arisen as a humble servant of these incredible mechanisms which try to influence biological determinism. It has constructed images, created contexts, added adornments and in manifold ways manipulated the context. It very soon became clear that presentations which are more ‘crafty’, efficient and refined are also more efficient in serving the idea promoted. Because of this, the better craftsman began to be favoured and better paid than an inferior one. Centuries of scrutinising craftsmen’s talents had passed and, finally, the first revelation took place. The phenomenon of a genius came to be recognised, someone exceptionally gifted, but whose talents were still attributed to his manual skill, rather than to a specific personality. From that moment, the names of artists began to appear in the context of art and to be decisive for fees and fame. But still, the hands rather than the soul were seen as the source of success. This state of semi-recognition lasted a few centuries. The outstanding and exceptional quality of artists was fully appreciated and their whims and idiosyncrasies respected. Nevertheless, the personality ‘ingredient’ continued to be less important than the work of art itself.

Noticing the person behind the work of art is combined with a certain disorientation about the work itself. It is not entirely clear whether it is a crucifixion, an annunciation,  a landscape or a portrait, or whether it is an interpretation and representation of the uniqueness of its creator. Although the role of the artist was becoming more and more prominent, no unambiguous answer was being given to that question,. Looking back at the history of art, one gets the impression that, from a certain moment onwards, everyone realised that art was contained in the artist, but it was felt that it would be premature to announce this revelation[1]. It was the 20th century that first revealed the phenomenon and cleansed the artist of any obligations towards idea, theme, messianism or ethics. Total independence of everything became the artist’s most precious attribute.

 

Private and social functions of art

In the old art, both those functions meshed quite seamlessly, although such fusion – at first perfect – became more and more dissonant, until finally it fall apart completely. From that time onwards, art has had to be considered separately in those two fields. In a certain sense, very much has changed, although more in the sense of a liberation of reflection about art rather than a radical change within art itself. Until then, it had been an artist’s duty to illustrate certain problems and make them more powerful and extraordinary through visual interpretation. Such ideas and their distribution were to a large extent common. The 20th century liberated the artist from anything held commonly, allowing him to concentrate exclusively on what mattered to him personally. Poetry accomplished this division even earlier. However, in spite of the artist now being liberated from the obligation to think ‘with the social glue’, 20th century artists continued – whether jointly or severally – to deal in a revolutionary or nostalgic way in common issues. It is such artists that the history of 20th century art above all takes notice of. Nevertheless, the division had taken place and from that point onwards the artist did not have to tune into social issues, unless – as was frequently the case – he was affected by them. The functioning of art now split into two areas; in the first, it was the artist who was the only overlord, in the second –  it was social intuition. The basis of the first was the question: ‘What is art for its creator?’; the basis of the second: ‘In what way can art serve society?’

 

The artist

The artist had been totally relieved of all obligations, including ethical[2]ones, and yet he found it hard to forget completely about the various benefits and delights that he had enjoyed at the time of his ‘enslavement’. The old dependence allowed him to vie for fame, money and the status of artistic demi-god. The contemporary, ‘free’ artist can only dream secretly about such things, because it is not the done thing to have such desires. The old artist was part of the mechanism of art; he practised its methods, he insinuated himself into the echelons of the recognised maestros and in every possible way peddled his services. The contemporary artist is a potential force, a possibility waiting to be called for a public appearance. His attempts to exist under his own steam bring ridicule. The artist is expected to adopt a stance which – perhaps only temporarily so – tradition prohibits. It is not easy to be a private individual, while being aware that at any moment one can be dragged into a social task. This paradoxical tension, which the 20th century dealt to art, takes its toll above all on the artist. It is he who has to change the most in his attitude to creativity, has to become contemporary in a situation where the ‘ancient’ temptations keep circling around him. It is difficult not to succumb to them, since they impose themselves, but, in turn, yielding to them most often affects the quality of privacy and, as a consequence, the quality of creativity. In the present functioning of art, the artist is the most sensitive, and therefore the most vulnerable, point. This situation to a large extent arises from the liability of the transient phase, when the artist has ceased to be treated as an outstandingly talented and sensitive interpreter of common ideas and has become the projector of private commentaries on the surrounding world. This change has been a veritable revolution and, as is usually the case, it is those manning the barricades that stand to lose the most. Especially so, as one of the revolutionary slogans has been the abolition of  former privileges.

The artist has become a victim of a suspension between two states of consciousness: one which is passing away and beginning to be harmful, that is to say, the consciousness of a genius; and the other which is approaching, that is to say, the privacy of art. Creating art has ceased to be a profession, for practising which the artist merits remuneration, exhibitions and fame. It has become a peculiar way of constructing a Weltanschauung, which relies on watching oneself in ‘image texts’. This change in the artist’s position has greatly preceded his readiness to embrace it. Still – in the popular understanding of the role of the artist – he is considered a potential genius, for whom greatness awaits. This damaging notion ruins his character and affects a false approach to art. Past knowledge and superannuated experiences continue to overload the mechanisms – not identified clearly – which steer art. Artists are no longer chosen for their perfection. These days what matters most is vigilance and ruthlessness of interpretation as well as the ‘beautiful presence of meaning’. This choice turns a private artistic commentary into a common cultural possession. However, only a few are chosen. Thousands of other artists, potential candidates for the ‘private to public’ transfer are overlooked. In this situation, the only solution – apart from fatal frustration – is to find the sense of creativity in relation to oneself. Adoption of such a stance necessitates becoming oblivious of the schema – still doing the rounds – that the artist deserves anything at all. Being an artist is a strictly private matter, which – just as many different private attributes – can be used socially in a selective manner. Assuming that this is how the role of the artist has changed, it is worthwhile analysing the instances of private, artistic innocence, that is to say, artists, who chose to forego the ancient privileges due to an outstanding artist[3] and practised art solely for their own benefit. Their cases clearly show the private usefulness of art.

This is the first part of the answer to the question: ‘What is art for?’ It is a private existential tool. It allows one to get to know oneself, to view from a distance issues on which one depends, to master one’s existence, at the same time transforming it into something more profound and more one’s own. One should wish upon everyone the discovery of such art. Unfortunately, the craving for success keeps hanging over art and overshadows the other values.

I consider the notion that art is a private form of ‘practising’ existence, where the originality of personality is the most important talent, a significant cultural problem, which demands to be introduced to the public awareness. I raised the issue at the Congress of Polish Culture in Kraków, naively assuming, that at such gatherings – just as at Vatican councils – both sides of the coin would be discussed, which is to say, both the dogma and the collection plate[-1] . However, in Kraków, only the collection plate was of interest. In such a context, to signal the muddled theoretical problem and to propose a change of dogma was received – and rightly so – as something out of place, as a lost chance to demand, from the podium, material benefits. This situation showed very clearly that there is a shortage of opportunities to discuss the theoretical problems of art.

 

The social role of art

In the 20th century, art was set totally free. No longer were particular themes or moods ordered from an artist. From that moment on, the artist could savour and suffer his own freedom. His existential contract with his own art became a private matter. However, culture is profoundly dependent on the art created by artists. In the final analysis, this is a creation which culture initiated, which depends on culture and which it has openly stimulated for centuries. Art has been one of the constructors of culture. These days, for evolutionary reasons, culture has liberated art from direct dependence on it. The explanation is anthropological in character. Formerly, the number of artists had been limited by the number of cultural orders. Artists were treated as particularly talented craftsmen who had specific tasks to perform. With art, there was no perception of any privileged treatment to be accorded to the individual. Such an attitude has changed drastically. Art began to be treated as a, more deeply conceived, form of existence. This is a conclusion which we owe to the artistic revolution of the 20th century. It culminated in Beuys’s pronouncement that ‘everyone is an artist’. The media revolution in art made it possible to put this notion into practice, doing away with manual limitations and allowing almost everybody to discover some productive talent. From that moment onwards, the only condition for ‘getting one’s hands on art’ was personality, or rather, a certain lack of restraint, which demanded an inner discourse through a work of creation. Earlier, culture was the employer of artists, which meant that only a few individuals took up art. From the 20th century onwards, culture has been encouraging everyone to be an artist, appearing to promise something but, in reality, with no guarantees of any kind. Art has become a human privilege, without a materialistic motive. Under such circumstances, it has become difficult to preclude anyone from access to it; it has almost become the duty of culture to open wide the doors to art. But, by the same token, culture has launched a surplus production of artists. From the cultural point of view, this has been no doubt beneficial, as now a much richer selection of material has become available. All that was missing was a defined interpretative apparatus. For that reason, a complicated, multi-level structure has evolved, the basic function of which is to examine everything which, from the point of view of the cultural paradigm, could become significant art and thereby qualify for inclusion in the history of art. This is how the ‘Art World’ [-2] has come about.

Thanks to the fact that many more artists have now appeared, culture has widened its interpretative visor. What it has been seeking is a commentary which is not available via a stereotypical critical view. Within art, a hunt is going on for an unpredictable, visionary critique. Such a critique can only be provided by a personality uncompromised by common thinking. Not all artists who create at a given time fulfil these conditions, therefore many are overlooked.

 

Fakes

This situation is relatively new, and in any case unfinished from the evolutionary point of view. That is why the old mingles with the new, causing various misunderstandings and bitterness. It would be most convenient to separate these worlds and to achieve a utopia, in which artists would be unaware of the operations performed by the ‘Art World’ in the name of culture. Artists would be introduced into the ‘social consciousness’ omitting completely any mention of any resultant rewards, such as any rise in the market value of their art or their having acquired star status. At the moment, this is a completely utopian concept, so it is impossible to keep as a secret from artists the huge benefits brought to them by any interest in their art shown by the ‘Art World’. The vision of the potential benefit is incredibly attractive and often stronger then the feeling of worth derived from the creation of art itself. Many artists desire success more than they desire their personal enrichment through art. In this way, they lose their own privacy and thereby lose any chance of succeeding. A vicious circle is one of the most common civilisational constructs.

 

The answer

The eponymous question ‘What Is Art For?’ has, then, two answers. First, art’s purpose is to serve as a private ontological and critical tool. Secondly, it is to enrich the social Weltanschauung with commentaries the like of which ‘averaged out’ thinking is not capable.

1. The question arises – which the present text does not in the least attempt to answer – to what extent the evolving theory affects the evolution of the field that it relates to.

2. 'Since art is not a work of free will, it evades any moral judgment; not because it is excused from it by any particular privilege, but simply because no such judgment can pertain to it.’ B. Croce, Zarys estetyk [Breviario di estetica], trans. var., ed. and intro. Z. Czerny, Warsaw, PWN, 1961, p. 33.

3. Old art had quite a precise system of verification of the artistic quality of artists. During his apprenticeship in masters’ workshops, and working on the creations of others, a painter was informed brutally about his own talents. If he was talented and additionally possessed of an unrestrained personality, he became a genius. Today, such verification practically does not exist. The predominant majority of students graduate from academies and leaves them behind with little knowledge about the limitations of their own talents or their personality predisposition. Graduation from an academy gives them a certain illusion of their own outstanding quality, its social unfulfilment leading to frustration. Decidedly, an open description of the current status of the artist is needed.