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  • By John Martin

What Is Art?


This isn't an essay. But it isn't a manifesto either. A manifesto is something one writes before one has started. An essay is something one writes after one has finished. I started a long time ago. And I hope I never finish. It is a set of working definitions. Other people may disagree. Indeed, I almost hope they do. I myself may very well disagree at some time in the future.


What is art?


Art is effective self-expression. To be effective it has to be disciplined by tradition according to the laws of truth, beauty and goodness. And then beyond that justice and love.


Beauty is contrast of opposites, balance and variety. And beyond that the synergy of opposites. For this reason it is related to self-contradiction, paradox and oxymoron. It should be distinguished carefully from the sublime, on the one hand, and the picturesque, on the other. The picturesque is the pretty-pretty. The sublime is the awe-inspiring and even terrifying. The beautiful vacillates somewhere halfway between these two. It is always more daring than the pretty-pretty but slightly safer than the sublime. (See Rilke's first Duino Elegy.)


Truth is the exact reproduction of an experience according to the limitations of the material in which one is working, both at the subjective, and objective, levels; and involves sincerity, honesty, openness, spontaneity, intimacy, revelation, unmasking and lack of pretentiousness. Observation and penetration also come in handy.


Goodness is essentially kindness. Not just to other people. And not just to oneself. It is wanting to see everybody fulfilled and at peace.


Justice is of three sorts: to oneself; to others; and from others. There is also the justice that others do to others in which one's only involvement is through identification with the plight of others. The easiest to achieve is the justice one does to oneself in one's work. This is especially the case in the arts. If you do justice to yourself then the other sorts of justice are more likely to follow. They can even become completely irrelevant. A fulfilled artist is more unlikely than anybody else to suffer from resentment.


Love is love. By this I do not mean romantic love, because the sort of love involved in the arts has absolutely no element of selfishness in it. It is pure gift. Just as the best of art is pure gift.


Art is not propaganda or topical comment. It is the cry of the baby transmuted into the mature sensibility of the adult.


It is not political. It disregards all political divides and asserts a universal appeal because of its profundity, depth and universality.


Ideally it challenges everything that is false in our thinking. Therefore it is non-binary and hence non-partisan.


Art is necessarily sensual since it can only be communicated to us through the senses.


Music through the ears.

Painting through the eyes.

Sculpture through touch.

Poetry and the novel through language.

Dance through locomotor responses.


Art works primarily at the level of the heart, but also at the level of the head, though in a subordinate way. It is essentially spiritual.

Literature is concerned with wisdom and insight. The novel and the play only with wisdom and insight, the poem with memorable wisdom and insight. Memorable wisdom is wisdom that is twice wise. Hence we say that poetry is the Queen of the arts. The word novel means new thing. Perhaps for this reason it is the only art in which avant-gardism actually works. Indeed the novel has been avant-garde from the beginning. Certainly avant-gardism seems to work nowhere else. And certainly not in so traditional an art as poetry. Or painting. For some reason it can work in sculpture. Perhaps because sculpture is connected with idol-worship and avant-gardism debunks idol-worship. The novel too is a debunking medium.


Painting is a composition involving six aspects: colour; drawing; chiaroscuro; paint-handling; story-telling; and design. There has been a move in recent times to concentrate on only one of these six aspects at a time. This is incorrect because it is divisive and is based on a false analogy with Science. Art and Science are opposed because whereas Science is analytical Art is synthetic. For instance Mondrian concentrates on design, Pollock on paint-handling, Rothko on colour and Dali on storytelling. That this is incorrect can be seen from the fact that Rothko's colour is nowhere as interesting as that of Klee or Picasso or Matisse, who were all genuine (i.e. synthetic) artists.


Music is concerned with sound. A harmonious arrangement of sound according to tone, duration, timbre, loudness, rhythm, etc. The overall harmony can, and often does, and perhaps always should, include its opposite. Just as good food often includes sharpness and sourness, and is not always sugary. And would be awful if it were.


Architecture can be thought of as a form of sculpture. It should therefore be more than a 'machine for living in' but it should never become a gloomy tomb for dying in. It surrounds us and is multifocal. It can usefully be compared to music and the novel. Some buildings are epics and some are sonnets. Some are opera-cycles and some sonatas. I personally prefer buildings that are reasonably harmonious and don't draw too much attention to themselves and work at the practical level. I am like that about people as well.


To a certain extent all the arts partake of all the other arts. For instance a good poem is music, architecture, sculpture, painting and prose just as much as it is a poem. And engages all the senses accordingly.


A Further Note on Goodness


If morality is important at all it is more important than anything. That it is important at all can be easily proved. From that its supreme importance can be further proved by using reductio ad absurdum techniques.


Putting other things first before virtue is called idolatry.


Compare: 'In order to be good I have to write good poetry' with 'In order to write good poetry I have to be good.' The latter is idolatrous. And essentially prostitutes virtue to some ulterior motive which is not in itself virtuous, since it is undoubtedly idolatrous.


Therefore a poet cannot be first and foremost a poet. And the better he is the more true that is. Poetry is a crutch that enables him to do something else. Something that is far more important. It is a means to an end that lies outside itself. Poetry is an adventure towards a goal that lies beyond poetry. And that must eventually result in complete individuation, and hence in complete goodness.


For this reason, is it possible to be good by joining a gang or an army? To me a good person must be very far along the path to complete individuation. And belonging to a gang or an army - any gang or any army - must militate against that. Therefore Thomas Merton was limited in his ability to be, and do, good. As is the Dalai Lama. Good artists are far more likely to be virtuous. Especially poets. That Father Louis rebelled against the constraints of monastic conformism can easily be understood. As he also did against the constraints of conformism to one particular religion.


As I say, the danger of idolatry is always great. Especially in the form of narcissistic self-intoxication. But this is far worse if you join a gang or an army. Since other people so easily lead one astray. Collective egotism is always the very devil. And is what is so characteristically wrong with all politics. Inevitably these vastly multiplied egos clash, and eventually cause war. Which necessarily then embroils complete and utter innocents, such as poets, and children. Much to everybody's detriment.


This age is a very difficult one in which to be good. Perhaps all ages are, but this one particularly, because of our universal 'education' system, which is universally dedicated to the cause of indoctrination in evil.


But in the end it must be remembered that we humans can never be perfectly good. As Christ said, only God is good (Mark 10:18). And the nearest we can get to being good is to get out of his way and let him work through us. As we do when we write our best poems and let the muse work through us.


John H.B. Martin is a poet who lives in London, England. He is a graduate of London University and Australia National University and has been writing for many decades. He has written four novels and is working on a fifth. His magnum opus is a six-volume epic poem. Most of his work is yet to be published.

1 Comment


martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
Mar 19, 2023

I love your line about 'the synergy of opposites'. That's a beautiful expression. I felt it once with a woman, and I thought there was a lot of art in that, if only I could express it! That aside, You are completely right about Rilke's Duino Elegies. David and Adam might set the standard for 'timeless poetry' with Keats and Shelley (and they wouldn't be wrong), but one wouldn't have to go too far from Rilke's timeless masterpiece to find it, and I'm glad you mentioned it in the context of this essay. Maybe that's the answer to your question. Maybe you answered it yourself the moment you asked it. Great art is always about transcendence. Transcending your life, your…

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