Art is indistinguishable from life.
Hassan (1987: 39)
T and enjoy music, to dance, to put on stage performances, to write he capacity to draw and extract meaning from pictures, to make poetry, is a truly extraordinary and enigmatic endowment of the species. The “art instinct” allows everyone, regardless of age, to indulge in the entire range of feelings and spiritual emotions that truly differentiate humans from other life forms. It is indisputable evidence of the workings of what Vico called fantasia (chapter 2, §2.1) Artistic expressions are passed on from generation to generation throughout the world as precious tokens of culture because they are perceived universally as transcending time, as saying something true and profound about the human condition.
Defining art is as impossible as defining culture. Indeed the two are often used as synonyms, or more accurately, as hyponyms, whereby one subsumes the other (chapter 3, §3.4). Art is something that everyone recognizes, but that no one can quite define. It involves a disciplined, skilled form of representation that entails a distinctive way of looking at the world. The word art, in fact, derives from the Latin ars, meaning “skill.” This is why this word is used frequently as a synonym for skill—e.g. the “art of gardening,” the “art of chess.” In its broader meaning, however, it involves not only specialized skill, but also a creative imagination and a point of view about the world that is etched into the artistic text.
In classical and medieval times, poets were praised and recognized for their artistic endeavors, whereas musicians, painters, sculptors, and other artists who used physical skills were considered less important and, therefore, remained anonymous. However, from the Renaissance on, as all human activities came to be valued, those skilled in the visual and performing arts gradually gained greater recognition and social prestige, and thus the right to authorship. By the eighteenth century, a more sophisticated public felt the need to distinguish between art that was purely aesthetic and art that was practical or ornamental. Thus, a distinction was made between the fine arts—including literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and architecture—and the decorative or applied arts—such as pottery, metalwork, furniture and carpet making, etc.—which for a time were demoted to the rank of crafts. Because the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris taught only the major visual arts, the term art has sometimes been narrowed in the West to mean only drawing, painting, architecture, and sculpture. However, since the mid-twentieth century, greater appreciation of all types of art, of non-Western art, and of folk artistic traditions has expanded the view of what constitutes art considerably.
Many scholars believe that art originally had a ritualistic and mythological function. The notion of artists as individualists and eccentric creators is a relatively modern one. In ancient cultures, art was created to be used as part of ceremonies meant to please the gods. It was made by all members of the community, rather than by professionals alone. In traditional aboriginal cultures of North America art continues, in fact, to be perceived as one aspect of community rituals that are designed to ensure a good harvest or to celebrate a significant life event such as a birth or a marriage. But even in modern Western cultures, art continues to reverberate with ritualistic overtones. At a performance of a classical piece of music in a concert hall, for instance, there is ristualistic silence. At a rock concert, on the other hand, there is communal shouting and physical involvement. Hanging a painting in an art gallery invites an individualistic appreciation; but drawing something on a city wall invites social participation (graffiti, commentary, modifications, etc.).
The subfield of semiotics that deals with art is called aesthetics; the related subfield of art interpretation is called hermeneutics. The two are concerned with such phenomena as human responses to sounds, forms, and words and with the ways in which the emotions condition such responses. In this chapter, therefore, our trip through culture reaches the site inhabited by Homo aestheticus. Actually, we have already met this species of Homo on previous stops—in our discussions of dancing (chapter 4, §4.9), poetry (chapter 5, §5.7), and architecture (chapter 7, §7.7). Here, we will limit the discussion to some of h/er other artistic skills.
The first aesthetic theory of any scope was that of Plato, who believed that art was an imitation of ideal forms. However, he also felt that art encouraged immorality, and that certain musical compositions caused laziness and immoderacy. He thus suggested banishing some types of artists from society. Aristotle also saw art as imitation, but not in the Platonic sense. The role of art, thought Aristotle, was to complete what Nature did not finish, separating the form from its content, such as the human bodily form from its manifestation in people, and then transferring that form onto some physical medium, such as canvas or marble. Thus, art was not pure imitation, but rather a particular representation of an aspect of things that had the capacity to profoundly affect the human observer and thus eventually transform the social order. In his Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragedy, for instance, so stimulates the emotions of pity and fear that by the end of the play the spectator is purged of them. This catharsis , as he called it, makes the audience psychologically healthier and thus more capable of happiness.
The third-century philosopher Plotinus (205–270 AD), born in Egypt and trained in philosophy at Alexandria, also gave far more importance to art than did Plato. In his view, art reveals the true nature of an object more accurately than ordinary experience does, thus raising the human spirit from the experience of the mundane to a contemplation of universal truths. According to Plotinus, the most precious moments of life are those mystical instants when the soul is united, through art, with the divine. Aesthetic experience is thus intertwined with mystical experience.
Art in the Middle Ages was considered to be primarily a servant of religious sentiments. It was during the Renaissance that art reacquired its more secular functions. The Renaissance saw little difference between the artist and the scientist. Indeed, many were both—Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, writer, and scientist, Michelangelo a visual artist and writer, to mention but two. It was only after the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement that an unfortunate, artificial split came about, pitting artists against scientists. The view of the artist as a unique kind of genius impelled by h/er own creative energies to free h/erself from the shackles of culture is also very much a product of Romanticism. In ancient times artists were merely laborers, paid by rulers for their services. Ancient Egyptian architects, for instance, were hired to build structures designed to glorify the pharaoh and life after death. In pious medieval Europe, visual artists and playwrights were hired by the Church to create art texts designed to extol Christian themes. The choice to be an artist was a matter of social custom, not of some esoteric inclination at birth. Artists, like other people, customarily followed their fathers’ profession. It was only after the eighteenth century that the choice to become an artist became an individual one.
So, why is art so effective emotionally, no matter who produces it or at which period of time it is produced? Perhaps the best-known, and most widely-accepted, contemporary theory for explaining the potency of art is the one put forward by the American philosopher Susanne Langer (1895–1985) during the middle part of the twentieth century. We do not experience art, she emphasized (Langer 1957), as individual bits and pieces (notes, shapes, words, etc.), but as a totality. It is only when an individual tries to understand rationally what the art work means that the holistic experience is transformed by reasoning and language into one in which its parts can be taken apart, discussed, critiqued, etc. like the individual words in a sentence. But, no matter how many times people try to understand the aesthetic experience discursively, it somehow remains larger than the sum of its parts. One can analyze the opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as a series of harmonic progressions and melodic figures based on the key of C# minor. But the elements of melody and harmony come into sharp focus as components of the work only upon a close discursive analysis of the sonata’s structure. When one hears it played as an artistic performance, one hardly focuses on these bits and pieces. One cannot help but experience the music holistically. And this is what makes it emotionally “moving,” as the expression goes. This can be compared to the pleasant sensation that comes from looking at an equilateral triangle. Our gratifying response to that figure derives not from the fact that it is made up of three equal lines, but from the way these lines are arranged to define the figure itself. The three lines considered separately or in some other arrangement (e.g. placed over each other) would not evoke any particular emotional or aesthetic response in the observer.
Langer remarked, further, that because of its profound emotional qualities, great art transforms human beings and cultures permanently. It is truly a “mirror of the soul,” as the saying goes. Humanity has never been the same since, for example, Michelangelo sculpted his David, since Shakespeare wrote his King Lear, since Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony. Indeed, the spiritual meanings in great art works can be discovered and rediscovered across time, across cultures. Art texts become a permanent part of the evolution of the human species, permanently etched in the spiritual blueprint of humankind.
The word performance is used to refer to the physical means employed for enacting an art text for an audience. Performances are generally given spatial prominence through a raised stage, and they generally involve using props and paraphernalia such as costumes, masks, musical instruments, and artifacts of various kinds. They are put on according to a socially defined tradition, i.e. they are scheduled, set up, and prepared in advance; they have a beginning and an end; they unfold in terms of a structured sequence of parts (e.g. acts in a play); and they are coordinated for public participation. Performances are both reflective and constitutive of cultural meanings: they both shed light upon the values of the culture and critique them. They are also intrinsically interconnected with the signifying order. This is why citations from Shakespeare or Molière, allusions to actions in famous plays, references to dramatic characters for explaining certain aspects of human nature (Oedipus, Antigone, Hamlet, Ophelia, Lear) are commonplace in ordinary discourse.
The performing arts include theater, dancing, singing, playing instrumental music (or combinations of these, as in musicals and opera), mime, vaudeville, circus acts, pageantry, and puppetry. In this section we will focus on the theater. This can be defined as an enactment of some event in Nature, in life, or in society, put on by actors on a stage, around which an audience can view and/or hear the performance. In general, theater puts on display actions and events that we somehow consider vital to our existence.
The term theater is used to describe both the performance itself and the location where it takes place. Stages and auditoriums have had distinctive forms in every era. New theaters today tend to be flexible and eclectic in design, incorporating elements of several styles. A theatrical performance, however, need not occur in an architectural structure designed as a theater, or even in a building. Many earlier forms of theater were performed in the streets, in open spaces, in market squares, in churches, or in rooms and buildings not intended for use as theaters. Much of contemporary experimental theater, too, rejects the formal constraints of traditional stage theaters, attempting to create the sense of auditorium through the actions of the performers and the natural features of the acting space.
The dramatic text in theater is usually verbal, but it can also be based purely on bodily movement. The latter genre is referred to more precisely as pantomime, or the art of theater based on facial expressions and bodily movements rather than on a verbal text. In the great openair theaters of ancient Greece and Rome, where the audience could see more easily than it could hear, pantomime became an important element of verbal theater as well, leading to the use of stylized pantomimic gestures to portray character in Western theatrical art.
Most scholars trace the origin of drama to ancient ceremonial practices. The dramatic nature of religious traditions can still be discerned, for example, in the Catholic Mass and the Easter reenactment of the Via Crucis. The early tribal performances were intended probably as fertility or harvest rites, i.e. as performances intended to appease the gods. Even in ancient Greece the first dramas revolved around tales of the gods. The plays of Aeschylus (c. 525–456 BC), Sophocles (c. 497–405 BC), and Euripides (c. 485–406 BC) were drawn from myth and legend, though their focus was not a simple performance of the mythic story line, but rather a consideration of the tragedy of human actions. The actors of those dramas wore masks, a practice which also had a ritualistic source. Masks are expressive devices, shifting the focus from the actor to the character, thus clarifying aspects of theme and plot as well as imparting a sense of greater universality to the character. In modern theater, make-up has taken over the functions of masks.
Comedy was developed in ancient Greece alongside drama for criticizing and satirizing both individuals and society in general. The first great comedic playwright was, no doubt, Aristophanes (c. 445–385 BC), who became famous for satirizing both public figures and the gods, to the delight of large audiences. The comedic approach became even more popular in the Roman plays of Plautus (c. 250–184 BC) and Terence (c. 185–159 BC). But, with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, the emerging Christian church saw the theater as too bawdy and scatological and discouraged it for more than five hundred years, promoting instead a liturgical form of theater based on Bible stories. By the fifteenth century, this form of drama had evolved into the morality play, which was a self-contained drama performed by professional actors, and which dealt, typically, with the theme of the individual’s journey through life. Theater had become over the centuries less and less participatory and more and more reflective as an art form
Comedic theater was revived by the movement known as the commedia dell’arte, an improvised comedy that arose in sixteenth-century Italy and spread throughout Europe in the next two hundred years. The six to twelve players in the commedia wore half-masks to portray the exaggerated features of a character. They did not use a script; rather, they improvised comedies both on outdoor, impromptu stages and in conventional staging areas. Each actor played the role of a stereotypical character as, for instance, Harlequin, the clownish valet; the Doctor, who used meaningless Latin phrases and often suggested dangerous remedies for other characters’ imagined illnesses; and Pulcinella, who concocted outrageous schemes to satisfy his animal-like cruelty and lust. Unlike traditional theater, commedia troupes featured skilled actresses rather than males playing the female characters. From this collection of stock characters, each troupe was able to put on hundreds of plots. Commedia actors also developed individual comic routines, called lazzi, which they could execute on demand, especially when it was felt that a sudden laugh was needed. For instance, a commedia performer might pretend to trip and tumble into a pail of bath water during the exit sequence.
Along with the commedia, modern theater generally started in the Renaissance when satirical plays such as The Mandrake, by Niccolo Machiavelli (1459–1527), revived the ancient world’s penchant for farce, bawdiness, and satire. By the mid-sixteenth century a new, dynamic secular theatrical practice had developed, leading to the plays of Shakespeare and Molière. The most important concept in Renaissance art was verisimilitude—the appearance of truth. Characters were depicted as ideal types, rather than as idiosyncratic individuals, and the sense of time, place, and action in the play was imbued with realism. Many of the plays had a single plot, which took place within a 24-hour period, and occurred only in one locale. The rationale was that a theater audience, knowing it had been sitting in one place for a limited time, would not believe a play that spanned several days or locations.
By the eighteenth century, Western theater was becoming even more realistic with the emergence of the Romantic movement in the arts. In its purest form, this movement concentrated on a search for the spiritual nature of humankind through art, the only form of human knowing that would allow humankind to transcend the limitations of the physical world and find truth. One of the best examples of romantic drama is Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832), by the German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Based on the classic legend of a man who sells his soul to the devil, this play depicts humankind’s attempt to master all knowledge and power in its constant struggle with the universe.
As plays attracted larger and larger audiences, playwrights became more and more involved in writing about bourgeois life, focusing on the psychological realism of the characters and showing concern for social problems. They sought to present a slice of life on the stage. This new realistic trend in theater led to the notion of the director as the person who interprets the text, determines acting style, suggests scenery and costumes, and gives the production a cohesive style. Through much of the history of drama the director was the playwright. During the late Romantic period, however, the director was instead often the leading actor of the company—the actor-manager. Duke George II of Saxe-Meiningen, who presided over the players in his ducal theater in Meiningen, Germany, in the 1880s, is generally regarded as the first modern director.
From the time of the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, theater had been striving for total realism, or at least for the illusion of reality. As it reached that goal at the threshold of the twentieth century, a multifaceted, antirealistic reaction erupted. Paralleling modern visual art and musical movements, playwrights at the turn of the century started turning out symbolist, abstract, and ritualistic dramatic texts in an attempt to revitalize the theater. Throughout the first half of the century, movements such as futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism sought to bring new artistic and scientific ideas into theater. But the most popular and influential nonrealistic genre of the first part of the twentieth century was absurdism. The subtext in all absurdist drama was that of humanity as lost in an unknown and unknowable world, where all human actions become senseless and absurd. Absurdism was at its peak in the 1950s, but continued to influence drama through the 1970s.
Waiting for Godot
Absurdist drama is psychologically powerful. Take, as a case-in-point, the play Waiting for Godot, published in 1952 by the Irish-born playwright and novelist, Samuel Beckett (1906–1989. It is a powerful indictment of the wretchedness of the human condition. Waiting for Godot caught the modern imagination because, like the two tramps in the play, people in the twentieth century seemed to have literally “lost faith,” having become cynical about the meaning of human existence. Even today, the play challenges our ingrained belief that there is a meaning to life, insinuating that all our meaning-generating systems (language, religious concepts, etc.) are no more than illusory screens we have set up to avoid the truth—that life is an absurd moment of consciousness on its way to extinction.
The play shows two tramps stranded in an empty landscape attempting to pass the time in a series of banal activities reminiscent of slapstick comedians or circus clowns. The two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, seem doomed forever to repeating their senseless actions and words. They call each other names; they ponder whether or not to commit suicide; they reminisce about the senseless past; they threaten to leave each other but cannot; they perform silly exercises; and they are constantly waiting for a mysterious character named Godot who never comes. A strange pair, named Lucky and Pozzo, appear, disappear, reappear, and finally vanish in the second act, which is virtually a duplicate of the first. Pozzo whips Lucky, as if he were a cart horse. Lucky kicks Estragon. The two tramps tackle Lucky to the ground to stop him from shrieking out a deranged parody of a philosophical lecture. Vladimir and Estragon go back to talking about nothing in particular, and wait with no purpose whatsoever for Godot. Their dialogue is meaningless, a chain of silly clichés. Allusions to the Bible narrative and scenery are sardonic and absurd—there is a bare tree on stage in a parody of the Biblical tree of life, the tramps constantly engage in meaningless theological discourse satirizing the questions raised by the Bible, etc. The play ends with the two tramps still waiting. “In the beginning was the Word,” announces Genesis; “the Word is hollow,” Beckett’s play retorts. There is no meaning to life, nor will there ever be. Life is meaningless, a veritable circus farce!
But despite the play’s nihilism, people seem paradoxically to discover meaning in it. The tramps are perpetually waiting for Godot—a name coined as an obvious sarcastic allusion to God. Godot never comes, in the play. But deep inside us, as audience members, we yearningly hope that Beckett is wrong, and that on some other stage, in some other play, the design of things will become known to us—that God will indeed come.
Waiting for Godot is a parody of the medieval Christian world view shaped by the Judeo-Christian Bible, a play that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth. The play satirizes the fact that words can refer only to other words, and that statements about anything subvert their own meanings. It thus assails the traditional assumption we make that language can express ideas without changing them. This is why some critics view Waiting for Godot as a critique of classic theater, which drew its stories and characters from myth or ancient history. The clear objective of the ancient dramas was to consider humanity’s place in the world and the consequences of individual actions. The classical actors—all men—wore costumes of everyday dress and large masks. Movement and gesture were stately and formal. The plays emphasized supernatural elements, bloody violence, and obsessive passions. Waiting for Godot is a cynical reenactment of this kind of theater. Its story and characters—all men—are there to consider humanity’s place in the world. But the play finds very little to consider and sees very little in the idea that individual actions have consequences. The play has no plot, no passion; the actions portrayed are inane; and the language used is incongruous.
Absurdist drama wanted to eliminate much of the cause-and-effect relationship among events, reduce language to a game and thus minimize its communicative power, reduce characters to archetypes, make places nonspecific, and portray the world as alienating and incomprehensible. Waiting for Godot is perhaps the best known absurdist play of the century. It is a disturbing parody of theater and the Christian worldview at once. There is only a void out there, no afterlife, no heaven or hell, blurts out the play. Human history has no beginning or end. Human beings fulfill no particular purpose in being alive. Life is a meaningless collage of actions on a relentless course leading to death and to the return to nothingness.
But Beckett’s bleak portrait somehow forces us to think about the very questions it appears to discard. Like the six characters in Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author, we nonetheless desire to continue our search for an author to write us into existence. Paradoxically, Beckett’s play stimulates in us a profound reevaluation of the meaning of consciousness and particularly of human spirituality. We may be condemned to waiting for Godot, and the rational part of our mind might tell us that existence is absurd, but at a more profound level we sense that there is a spiritual reality that can only be felt, not understood.
Whatever the trend in theatrical style, drama constitutes an intrinsic component of all cultures and is highly interconnected with a culture’s signifying order. The ancient tragedies showed how humans and the gods struggled, interacted, and ultimately derived meaning from each other. Medieval morality plays put on display principles of human conduct that informed the populace about what was meaningful to them. Shakespeare’s great tragedies brought the struggle of Prometheus in Aeschylus’ drama down to more earthly dimensions in the figures of a Hamlet, a King Lear, a Macbeth. The theatrical code in a culture is, as mentioned, highly interconnected with the other codes. This is why we commonly say that people “act out” their feelings, that they “play roles,” that they “walk in and out of a situation” (like a dramatic scene), that they “wear masks” to hide their true selves, and so on. As Shakespeare himself aptly put it, “All the world’s a stage.”
Today, the functions of the theater have been largely replaced by cinema (below, §8.5), although so-called “experimental” theater attracts a fairly large following. Many experimental playwrights of the 1960s and 1970s wrote plays using language as a game, as sound, as a barrier, as a reflection of society. In a play such as American Buffalo (1976) by David Mamet (1947–), for instance, little action occurs and the focus is on mundane characters and events. The language is fragmentary, as it is in everyday conversation. And the settings are indistinguishable from reality. The intense focus on seemingly meaningless fragments of reality creates a nightmarish effect for the audience. But by the 1990s, theater in much of the Western world seems to have entered into a period of stasis, rather than experimentation, giving way to cinema as the primary form of theatrical-narrative art in the culture. Musical theater has also emerged as a popular entertainment art form. Already in the 1920s musicals were transformed from a loosely connected series of songs, dances, and comic sketches to a story, sometimes serious, told through dialogue, song, and dance. The form was extended in the 1940s by the team of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) and in the 1980s by Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948–) with such extravagantly popular works as Cats (1982) and Phantom of the Opera (1988).
It should be mentioned, as a final word, that theatrical practices in Asia—in India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia—have been significantly different from post-Renaissance Western practices. The central idea in Asian performance art is a blend of literature, dance, music, and spectacle. The theater is participatory—the audience does not actually take part in the performance, but participation unfolds like a shared experience. The performances are often long, and the spectators come and go, eating, talking, and watching only their favorite moments. Asian theater was discovered by the West in the late nineteenth century, influencing acting, writing, and staging among the absurdists and many others.
Music is an art form involving the organized movement of sounds through a continuum of time. Music plays a role in all societies, and it exists in a large number of styles, each characteristic of a geographical region or a historical era. Indefinite border areas exist, however, between music and other sound phenomena such as poetry (chapter 5, §5.7). For this reason, societies differ in their opinion of the musicality of various sounds. Thus, chanting, half-spoken styles of singing, or sound texts created by a computer program may or may not be accepted as music by members of a given society or group. Muslims, for example, do not consider the chanting of the Koran to be music, although to Western ears the structure of the chant is similar to that of secular singing. Often, it is the social context in which the sounds occur that determines whether or not they are to be regarded as music. Industrial noises, for instance, are not perceived as musical unless they are presented as part of a concert of experimental music in an auditorium, with a composer.
Various strata of musical art may exist, according to culture: (1) classical music, composed and performed by trained professionals originally under the patronage of courts and religious establishments in the West; (2) folk music, shared by the population at large; and (3) popular music, performed by professionals, disseminated through electronic media (radio, television, records, film) and consumed by a mass public. But the boundaries among these strata are not clear—e.g. melodies from the realm of classical music are sometimes adopted by the folk community, and vice versa.
Although an isolated cuneiform example of Hurrian (Hittite) music of 2000 BC has been tentatively deciphered, the earliest Western music known is that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, dating from about 500 BC to 300 AD. Fewer than a dozen examples of Greek music survive, written in a notation that has still not been deciphered with certainty. Greek and Roman theories of the nature and function of music, however, are discussed at length in the writings of such philosophers as Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato, and Boethius. These philosophers believed that music originated with the god Apollo, the musician Orpheus, and other mythological figures, and that it reflected in microcosm the laws of harmony that rule the universe. They also believed that music influences human thoughts and actions. The rhythm of Greek music was closely associated with language. In a song, the music was composed to duplicate the rhythms of the text. In an instrumental piece it was made to follow the rhythmic patterns of the various poetic meters. The internal structure of Greek music was based on a system of sound modes that combined a scale with special melodic contours and rhythmic patterns. A similar organization exists today in Arabic and Indian music. Because each Greek mode incorporated rhythmic and melodic characteristics, listeners could distinguish between them. Greek philosophers wrote that each mode possessed an emotional quality and that listeners would experience this quality on hearing a composition in that mode.
Opinions differ as to the original motivation for, and the spiritual value of, music. In some African societies music is seen as the faculty that sets humans apart from other species; among some Native Americans it is thought to have originated as a way for spirits to communicate with human beings. In Western society music is regarded generally as an art form. But in some others it is considered to be of low value, associated with sin and evil, and thus something to be restricted or even prohibited. This view is not unknown to America, where attempts in the 1950s to ban rock’n’ roll were based on the argument that it was an obscene and sinful form of musicality.
The minimal unit, or signifier, of musical organization is the tone—a sound with specific pitch and duration. Musical texts are put together by combining individual tones to make melodies and harmonies, on the structural plan of regularly recurring beats. The makers of musical texts are known, appropriately enough, as composers, since the principal creative act in music is based on arranging sounds into meaningful texts known as compositions. Innovation is an important criterion of good composing in Western society, but is less so in other societies. Creative acts in music also include improvisation, or the creation of new music in the course of performance. Improvisation usually takes place on the basis of some previously determined structure, such as a tone or a group of chords; or it occurs within a set of traditional rules, as in the ragas of India or the maqams of the Middle East. Performance, which involves a musician’s personal interpretation of a previously composed piece, has smaller scope for innovation.
Music everywhere is used frequently to accompany other activities. It is, for example, universally associated with dance. It is a major component in many types of religious services, secular rituals, and theater. In some societies it is also an activity carried on for its own sake. In Western society, for example, music is often listened to at concerts, on the radio, etc. In a fundamental sense music is an “international language,” since its grammar is not based on word meanings and combinations, but on melody, rhythm, and harmony. Like gesture codes, these seem to be more understandable across cultures than verbal languages are, and fit much more easily into frames of meaning that transcend specific cultures.
The paintings of animals found on cave walls and roofs, and the artifacts that exploded onto the scene in Europe over 30,000 years ago, bear witness to the productivity of visual representation. These are the “fossil records,” so to speak, of humanity’s first attempts at visual knowing. The capacity for visual art is etched into the human blueprint. The research on childhood development shows that at about the same time that children utter their first words they also start scribbling and doodling. Although children, with parental prompting, may learn to label the rough figures they make as, say, “suns” or “faces,” they do not set out to draw anything in particular, but instead seem spontaneously to produce forms that become refined through practice into precise, repeatable shapes. The act of drawing in childhood appears to be pleasurable in itself; usually identification is provided, if at all, only after the child finishes drawing. Of course, shapes eventually suggest “things” (signifieds) to the child as h/er ability to use symbols develops, but in the beginning, pleasure and satisfaction occur without larger or more explicit associations of meaning. This form of representational activity in childhood is truly an example of “art for art’s sake.”
Drawing involves transferring perceived forms onto some surface, representing them with lines and shapes. These are the minimal elements of visual representation which can be called pictoremes, in analogy with phoneme, kinestheme, etc. Linear pictoremes can be straight, round, curved, etc. and used in various combinations to make up all kinds of visual signifiers. Three straight lines, for instance, can be joined up in specific ways to represent a triangle, the letter “H,” or a picnic table iconically:
Virtually everything we see can be represented by a combination of lines and shapes: e.g. a cloud is a shape, a horizon is a line. Other visual signifiers include value, color, and texture. Value refers to the darkness or lightness of a line or shape. It plays an important role in portraying dark and light contrasts. Color conveys mood, feelings, atmosphere. This is why we speak of “warm,” “soft,” “cold,” “harsh” colors. Texture refers to the sensation of touch evoked imagistically when we look at some surface.
Lines and shapes can also be combined to create an illusion of depth. In the following plane figure there are 12 lines. The way they are put together, however, makes us believe that they represent a three-dimensional box:
The figure has been drawn with straight lines drawn on a two-dimensional surface (the page). Yet we interpret it as a three-dimensional box. This is both because of the use of perspective representation and of dotted lines. Such techniques allow us to portray three-dimensional spaces convincingly on two-dimensional surfaces. In perspective representation, the flat surface of the painted picture is known as the picture plane; the horizon line is the horizontal eye-level line that divides the scene in the distance; and the vanishing point is located on the horizon line where parallel lines in the scene appear to converge. The person who developed the technique of perspective was, as mentioned previously, the Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi (chapter 3, §3.10).
What Is Art?
The question of the function of visual art has become part of a general social debate as contemporary Western art galleries routinely put controversial “abstract” paintings and sculptures on display. One of the most famous versions of this debate was initiated by Andy Warhol (1928-1987), the American pop artist who produced paintings and silkscreen prints of commonplace images, such as soup cans and photographs of celebrities. Take, for example, his painting of a Campbell’s soup can (1964).
When asked what it means, people will either (1) say that it means nothing, or (2) give responses such as “It is a symbol of our consumer society,” “It represents the banality and triviality of contemporary life,” etc. The latter pattern of responses suggests that we tend to interpret human-made artifacts as “works of art” because meanings and values are attributed to them by those who make them, by the society in which they live, and by those who look at them in later years. But, in our view, “art” that does not evoke the sense of consciousness associated with reflective human emotion is bound to have little lasting value. True art transcends the social, the present, and the purely conventional. It is an expression of a search for meaning in life that makes consciousness both agonizing and ecstatic at once.
The modern idea of visual art as something to be appreciated individualistically by viewing it in a gallery or museum belies the fact that art in its origins had a public function. Art was meant to decorate the public square or to commemorate some meaningful event. The idea of “private” and “authored” art is a modern idea that took shape in the late Renaissance. And only after the Romantic nineteenth century did the idea of the “art gallery” as the appropriate locus for appreciating art emerge as an idée fixe. Created for display in a public space, art was originally always open to contributions from the denizens of the area, making the interpretation of a work an open-ended one. Only in a gallery setting is interpretation controlled by the original maker of the art. Any contributions to the art text would be considered defacement.
One of the more interesting visual art forms of the contemporary world is photography. The earliest photographs on record were made by the French physicist Nicéphore Niepce (1765–1833). Then in 1831 the French painter Louis Daguerre (1789–1851) succeeded in developing a positive photographic image. From then on, the technology needed to develop modern photography was developed with great rapidity. The first camera for public use was produced by the American George Eastman (1854–1932) in 1889. During the 1950s, new manufacturing processes greatly increased the speed, or light sensitivity, of both black-and-white and color film. The decade was also marked by the introduction of electronic devices called light amplifiers, which intensify dim illumination, making possible the recording on photographic film of even the faint light of very distant stars. Such advances in mechanical devices systematically raised the technical level of both amateur and professional photography.
Photography became an art form almost from the instant it was invented. Indeed, from the 1860s through the 1890s it was conceived of as an alternative to drawing and painting, allowing for greater fidelity. In other words, photography was viewed as a shortcut to traditional visual art. The Swedish photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813–1875) and the English photographer Henry Peach Robinson (1834–1901), for instance, emulated painting forms with their cameras. Like the painter, they claimed, the photographer inevitably makes a selection of what is to be recorded. This selection may be planned ahead of time or calculated on the spot. Lighting, focus, and camera angle may be manipulated to alter the appearance of the image; the developing and printing processes may be modified to produce desired results; or the photograph may be combined with other media to produce a composite art form.
Photography has become much more than an ersatz form of painting in modern technological cultures. In our society today it mediates how we remember people, events, and things. The photographs that adorn our tables and walls are, in effect, visual mementos and testimonials of who we are. Photographs capture a fleeting and irretrievable moment in time, extracting it from the flux of change that characterizes human life. Such captured moments have strong appeal because they provide eyewitness evidence, so to speak, that we do indeed exist in some enduring form, at least in the photographic space—this is why, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 movie masterpiece, Blow-Up, the search for clues to a crime in a blow-up of a photograph is interpretable as a metaphor for the search for clues to our own existence in our photographic images.
The example of Blow-Up leads to the topic of cinema, which has become the art form to which most people today respond most strongly and to which they look for recreation, inspiration, and insight. Movies are aesthetically powerful because they juxtapose dialogue, music, scenery, and action in a visual-narrative way.
Most cinema historians trace the origin of cinema to the year 1896, when the French magician Georges Méliès made a series of films that explored the narrative potential of the new medium. In 1899, in a studio on the outskirts of Paris, Méliès reconstructed a ten-part version of the trial of French army officer Alfred Dreyfus and filmed Cinderella (1900) in 20 scenes. He is chiefly remembered, however, for his clever fantasies, such as A Trip to the Moon (1902), in which he exploited the new possibilities for offering perspective that the movie camera afforded. His short films were an instant hit with the public and were shown internationally. Although considered little more than curiosities today, they are significant precursors of an art form that was in its infancy at the time.
The theatrical fantasies of Méliès influenced the American inventor Edwin S. Porter, often called the father of the silent film, when he produced the first major American silent film, The Great Train Robbery, in 1903. Only eight minutes long, it greatly influenced the development of motion pictures because of its intercutting of scenes shot at different times and in different places to form a unified narrative, culminating in a suspenseful chase. With the production of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), small theaters sprang up throughout the United States, and cinema emerged as a de facto art form. Most films of the time were short comedies, adventure stories, or filmed records of performances by leading actors of the day.
Between 1915 and 1920, grandiose movie palaces proliferated throughout the United States. The film industry moved gradually to Hollywood. Hundreds of films a year poured from the Hollywood studios to satisfy the ever-increasing craving of a fanatic movie-going public. The vast majority of them were Westerns, slapstick comedies, and elegant romantic melodramas such as Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female (1919). In the 1920s movies starring the comedian Charlie Chaplin ushered in the golden age of silent film.
After World War I, motion-picture production became a major American industry, generating millions of dollars for successful studios. American films became international in character and dominated the world market. Artists responsible for the most successful European films were imported by American studios, and their techniques were adapted and assimilated by Hollywood.
The transition from silent to sound films was so rapid that many films released in 1928 and 1929 had begun production as silent films but were hastily turned into sound films, or “talkies” as they were called, to meet the growing demand. Gangster films and musicals dominated the new “talking screen” of the early 1930s. The vogue of filming popular novels reached a peak in the late 1930s with expensively mounted productions of classic novels, including one of the most popular films in motion-picture history, Gone with the Wind (1939).
The trend toward escapism and fantasy in motion pictures was strong throughout the 1930s. A cycle of classic horror films, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932), spawned a series of sequels and spin-offs that lasted throughout the decade. One of the most enduring films of the era was the musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz (1939), based on a book by L. Frank Baum—a children’s movie with a frightful theme that reflected the emerging cynicism of society at large, namely, that all human aspirations are ultimately make-believe, that the Wizard at the end of the road of life is really a fraud, a charlatan. The fun of living is getting to Oz, not finding out the truth about Oz.
One American filmmaker who came to Hollywood from radio in 1940 was the writer-director-actor Orson Welles, who experimented with new camera angles and sound effects that greatly extended the representational power of film. His Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) influenced the subsequent work of virtually every major filmmaker in the world. From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, Italian cinema achieved an intimacy and depth of emotion that radically transformed cinematic art, with Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945); Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1949); Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1966); Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963), and Juliet of the Spirits (1965); Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1959) and Red Desert (1964); Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and 1900 (1977); and Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away (1975) and Seven Beauties (1976).
One of the most distinctive and original directors to emerge in post-World War II international cinema was Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman (1918-), who brought an intense philosophical and intellectual depth to his films, treating the themes of personal isolation, sexual conflict, and religious obsession. In his film The Seventh Seal (1956) he probed the mystery of life and spirituality through the trials of a medieval knight playing a game of chess with Death. In Wild Strawberries (1957) he created a series of poetic flashbacks reviewing the life of an elderly professor. He dissected the human condition starkly in a series of films—Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and Autumn Sonata (1978)—which excoriated the futile penchant in the human species to search for meaning in existence.
In the 1950s and 1960s the use of color virtually eclipsed the blackand-white film. But some filmmakers still preferred black and white, striving for “naked” realism. Such black and white films as Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock, The Last Picture Show (1971) by Peter Bogdanovich, Raging Bull (1980) by Martin Scorsese, Zelig (1983) and Shadows and Fog (1992) by Woody Allen, and Schindler’s List (1994) by Steven Spielberg have become classics.
Of the many directors of the last part of the twentieth century, perhaps no one has been as successful at exploiting the film medium as a versatile art form as has Steven Spielberg (1947–). His Jaws (1975), about a killer shark that terrorizes a small beach community, became the model for a number of films in which fear-inspiring creatures threatened helpless victims. His Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982) capitalized on a widespread fascination with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. His other multimillion-dollar blockbusters include Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), all imitative of the serial cliffhangers of the 1930s. Most of Spielberg’s films rely heavily on high-tech special effects, especially his Jurassic Park (1993), which features frighteningly realistic computer-generated dinosaurs. Within the first four weeks of its release, Jurassic Park became one of the highest-grossing films up to that time, only to be surpassed by James Cameron’s Titanic (1998) a few years later.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a revolution in the home-video market, with major releases being made available for home viewing almost immediately after they left the movie theater. This development, combined with the advent of cable television, which features relatively current films on special channels, seemed to threaten the long-term survival of movie theaters and created a climate similar to that of the early 1950s, when television began to challenge the popularity of motion pictures. As a result, film companies increasingly favored large spectacles with fantastic special effects in order to lure the public away from home videos and back to the big screen. But despite the challenge from video, the traditional movie theater has remained as popular as ever—a testament to the power of cinema as an art form for the modern imagination.
Cinema talks to the modern psyche in ways that perhaps theater cannot. As an example, consider Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic movie Blade Runner, based on a science fiction story titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). This movie still attracts considerable interest from moviegoers of all kinds.
Before discussing this movie, it is necessary to deal first with the science fiction genre itself. Unlike traditional forms of fiction, this genre looks at the effects of science or future events on human beings. Although this has ancient roots—e.g. in his True History (160 AD) Lucian of Samosata dealt with a trip to the moon; the seventeenth century British prelate and historian Francis Godwin also wrote of travel to the moon; the English statesman Sir Thomas More wrote about an idealized world in Utopia (1516)—science fiction as we now know it traces its origins to the Industrial Revolution period when, in her novel Frankenstein (1818), the British novelist Mary Shelley (1797-1851) explored the potential of science for good or evil. After the publication of this novel, the science fiction genre emerged as a new form of popular fiction. The first writer to specialize in this new genre was the French author Jules Verne (1828-1905). His highly popular novels include Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). The first major English writer of science fiction was H. G. Wells (1866-1946), whose Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and The War of the Worlds (1898) became instant classics.
In the twentieth century the popularity of science fiction grew with the publication of Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) by George Orwell (1903-1950). These two novels set the stage for Blade Runner, which was scripted in the 1980s style of science fiction writing, called cyberpunk. The targets of cyberpunk writers were dehumanized societies dominated by technology and science, and the fallibility of scientists.
Blade Runner deals, actually, with an ancient theme: What if we could bring machines to life? What would they be like? Against the depressing backdrop of a futuristic choking urban landscape, Rick Deckard is one of a select few law-enforcement officers, nicknamed “blade runners,” who have been trained to detect and track down “replicants,” powerful humanoid robots who had been engineered to do the work of humans in space. But some of the replicants have gone amok. They have somehow developed the mental characteristics of humans and have started to ask fundamental philosophical questions about their own existence made urgent by the limited lifespan programmed into them. A desperate band of these killer replicants has made its way back to Earth, seeking to have their programmed deaths reversed. They are looking for the sinister corporate tycoon responsible for their creation, so that he can give them new life. Deckard’s assignment is to track down these runaway replicants and terminate them.
The movie is about neither genetic engineering nor the dream of bringing machines to life. It is about the nature of humanity. The movie asks if “humanity” is itself a concept, the concoction of some invisible tycoon. It is relevant to note that the method used by Deckard to detect whether a suspect is human or replicant is reminiscent of the classic Turing test proposed by artificial intelligence theorists (chapter 2, §2.4). Interestingly, we are never sure if Deckard is himself a human or a replicant. This ambiguity is an intrinsic part of the movie’s narrative.
Deckard’s search unfolds in an urban wasteland where punk mutants control the streets while the pathetic inhabitants of endless blocks of gloomy high-rises remain glued to their TV sets. Deckard relies on a VCR, complete with stop action and precision image-enhancers, to track the replicants through dark alleys abandoned to the forces of anarchy.
In this scenario the replicants, paradoxically, are more “human” than the human characters. Deckard even falls in love with one of them, Rachel, whose name alludes obviously to the Biblical Rachel. She helps him track down his prey, falling in love with him. Deckard is saved at the end by a replicant who shows him mercy, one of the quintessential human qualities. Not only the replicants, but the mannequins in the movie as well, are all icons of the human form. Indeed, one of the replicants is killed sardonically by a mannequin. Human-like toys are also seen from time to time. But there is one feature that differentiates human anatomy from artificially-made anatomies—the eye. Deckard’s version of the Turing test involves identifying the particular kinds of responses that only the human eye is capable of. Replicants use their eyes exclusively to see; humans use them as well to show feeling and spirituality. Aware of the mysterious power of the human eye, the replicants kill their maker by poking out his eyes.
The film asks basic questions about the nature of the emotions and human memory. Awareness of Self is largely autobiographical. This is why false memories were implanted in Rachel, leading her to believe that she was truly “human.”
The film makes many ironic references to the Biblical narrative of Western society. Near the end, a replicant wearing only a white cloth around his waist, in obvious parody of the Crucifixion scene, saves Deckard’s life at the cost of his own. The white dove that appears when the replicant dies is laden with religious symbolism. Finally, when Deckard and Rachel escape the gruesome city scene to the countryside, the dark, gloomy atmosphere suddenly clears up, the sun comes out, and a “new Biblical dawn” arises.
Blade Runner asks the fundamental questions of philosophy in a new way: What is a human being? What is real? Is there any meaning to existence? It does so by making the replicants mirror images of human beings, transforming their struggle to know who they are into a reflection of our own struggle. It is interesting to note that as we embark upon the twenty-first century, the themes that Blade Runner explored have become popular ones in society at large. Many of the same themes are examined by TV science fiction programs with large followings.
In closing this chapter, a few comments are in order with respect to a movement in the art world known as postmodernism, especially since it became for a while in the 1980s and 1990s a topic of substantial interest to cultural semioticians. Recall that the term postmodernism was coined by architects to designate a response against the earlier modernist style (of skyscrapers, tall apartment buildings, etc.) that had degenerated into sterile and monotonous formulas (chapter 7, §7.7). Postmodern architects called for greater individuality, complexity, and eccentricity in design, along with allusions to historical symbols and patterns. Shortly after its adoption in architecture, the notion of postmodernism started to catch on more broadly, becoming a more general movement in philosophy and the arts.
To understand the philosophical roots of this movement it is instructive to step back in time to the Christian medieval era. The worldview of most people of that era was focused on a firm belief in an afterlife with God. The typical medieval individual probably saw h/erself as being put on earth by God to prove h/erself worthy of reunification with God in Heaven. This state of affairs was necessitated when humanity’s first parents, Adam and Eve, were ejected from the Garden of Eden because of their sin. Humanity then had to regain favor with God. To show sin-prone humanity how to atone for its sins, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of humanity, who will come a second time to restore the original state of innocence at the end of the world. This Biblical worldview found its greatest artistic expression in the Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri (chapter 5, §5.7).
The religious narrative imparted a form of reassurance to most people alive in the medieval era. After the Renaissance and certainly after the Enlightenment, however, a more secular worldview took hold of people living in Western culture. This did not, however, eliminate the religious narrative from the signifying order completely. Statistics show that even today the majority of people living in the West are convinced that the world has a design and a purpose that is beyond science to know, and that there probably is a Being at the “center” of the design, who is the “author” of the human story.
In the nineteenth century, the dizzying growth of technology and the constantly increasing certainty that science could eventually solve all human problems on its own terms brought about a radically different philosophical outlook in Western culture. At mid-century, Darwin introduced the controversial notion of natural selection, which posed a serious challenge to the traditional Christian worldview (chapter 1, §1.1). By the end of the century, the now famous assertion that “God is dead,” by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), acknowledged the radical change in worldview that science and especially Darwinian evolutionary theory had brought about. Nietzsche meant, of course, that the grip which the medieval Christian narrative had had on Western society had finally been loosened. By the middle part of the twentieth century, the critique of all aspects of that narrative had begun in full earnest. Postmodernism was just around the corner.
Among the cultural symptoms of the new worldview in the domain of art were the absurdist movement discussed above (§8.2) and the postmodernist art movement which, like its counterpart in architectural design, called for greater individuality, complexity, and eccentricity. But the essence of postmodern technique in all the arts was irony and parody, and the belief that there was nothing beneath the parodies. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1992: vii-viii) has perceptively remarked, postmodernism constitutes “a state of mind marked above all by its all-deriding, all-eroding, all-dissolving destructiveness.”
A well-known example of postmodern art technique in the area of cinema is Godfrey Reggio’s brilliant 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi—a film without words that unfolds through a series of discontinuous, narrativeless images. On the one hand, the movie shows us how narrativeless, disjunctive, and distracted the twentieth-century world has become; on the other hand, it is an example of what postmodern art is like, a parody of documentary-style films and TV programs. The film has no characters, plot, dialogue, commentary: in a word, nothing recognizable as a narrative. The camera juxtaposes contrasting images of cars on freeways, atomic blasts, litter on urban streets, people shopping in malls, housing complexes, buildings being demolished, etc. We see the world as the TV camera sees it. It is a turgid, gloomy world with no purpose or meaning whatsoever. People run around like mindless robots. To emphasize the insanity of a world characterized by countless cars, decaying buildings, and crowds bustling aimlessly about, Reggio incorporates the mesmerizing music of Philip Glass (1937–) into his technique. The music acts as a guide to understanding the images, interpreting them tonally. We can feel the senselessness of human actions in such a world in the contrasting melodies and rhythms of Glass’ music. His slow rhythms tire us with their heaviness, and his fast tempi—which accompany a demented chorus of singers chanting in the background—assault our senses. When this musical-imagistic frenzy finally ends, we feel an enormous sense of relief.
In a certain sense, the whole film can be conceived of as a musical sonata with an opening part or exposition, a middle developmental section, and a final recapitulation with coda. The film starts off with a glimpse into a vastly different world—the world of the Hopi peoples of Arizona. This is a world firmly embedded in a holistic view of existence, a view that does not separate social life from Nature. Glass’ choral music in this exposition is spiritual, sacred, profound. It inspires reverence for the human and the natural as one inseparable reality. This stands in dark contrast to the development of the filmic sonata—a cornucopia of dissonant images of a decaying, senseless, industrialized world. Then we are taken back, at the end, to the Hopi world. As in any recapitulation, the opening profound strains of the choir come back, hauntingly, awesomely, and with a warning this time (the coda) which is projected onto the screen:
koyaanisqatsi (from the Hopi language)
- crazy life
- life in turmoil
- life out of balance
- life disintegrating
- a state of life that calls for another way of living
As this movie clearly shows, the postmodern movement in art offered a break from traditional narrative art. As Jean-François Lyotard (1984: xxiv) states, in postmodern art “narrative function is losing its functors, its great heroes, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal.” However, in making Western culture more aware of its narrative presuppositions and its preoccupation with words, postmodernism engenders a reconsideration of Western belief systems. As mentioned at the start of this chapter, art and culture are inextricably intertwined. They are two sides of the same coin. Both have evolved to satisfy the need for meaning in the human species. It should come as little surprise, therefore, that as postmodern art lost its grip on the artistic imagination by century’s end, so too did cultural trends start to become much less deconstructive of or ironic about the past. At the threshold of the twenty-first century, the Western signifying order, like all other signifying orders, has proven to be a highly dynamic and adaptive tool, serving basic human needs that are not significantly different than were those felt by the members of the first tribal societies.