At Gutenberg College we take an integrative approach to teaching art. As a liberal arts institution, the question of what constitutes art is a central issue. What is art, and why does it matter?
This question took on a new dimension for me when I encountered the following sign on the door of one of Eugene’s artistic institutions:
I stopped short. There’s a men’s room. There’s a women’s room. And there’s an artists’ room. Traditionally, we have distinguished restrooms by gender and anatomy in the United States. Suddenly, an entirely new set of criteria had to be weighed in the realm of waste management. I started to wonder: “What kind of person do I need be to use this restroom, and what do I need to do to get access to this considerably shorter line?”
While this thirty-second comic scenario played in my head, I was reminded just how much artists, art works, and the concept of artistry hold honorific status in contemporary society. We study and venerate art. We construct and designate special buildings like the Louvre to protect and exhibit art. We lionize artists like Jimi Hendrix and Ludwig van Beethoven and heap praise and admiration upon them. We even tolerate erratic behavior of artists who fail to conform to typical social conventions.
Definitions of art and artists have varied wildly across the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas defined art as “right reason in the doing of work,” stating furthermore that “The test of the artist does not lie in the will with which he goes to work, but in the excellence of the work he produces.” At the turn of the twentieth century, the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde glibly remarked that “As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art.” Meanwhile, the Austrian composer and music theorist Arnold Schoenberg insisted that “If it is art, it is not for all. If it is for all, it is not art,” while Russian writer Leo Tolstoy argued that “if, as in our day, it [art] is not accessible to all men, then either art is not the vital matter it is represented to be, or that art which we call art is not the real thing.” On the cusp of the twenty-first century, art philosopher Joseph Margolis contended that works of art are “physically embodied and culturally emergent entities.” Which of these definitions—if any—is right, reasonable, true, and consistent; and how can our perceptions of art affect and inform our perspectives of other disciplines?
The notion of art is so central to Gutenberg that incoming freshmen devote a term each to examining two central questions: 1) What is art? and 2) How is art done?
This past fall, the freshman “Defining Art” seminar looked closely at readings in the philosophy of art in an attempt to begin to define a rather slippery concept. We took as our starting point the importance, value, and ubiquity of art, art works, and artistry in cultural life. We all experience this thing that we—casually—call art and are thus affected by it, whether we know it or not. Art—whatever its form—makes philosophical arguments to audiences. And, because art is not made in a vacuum, it involves the agency of individuals and the art worlds that surround them. While we did not—because we cannot—exhaustively settle the question of “what art is,” each student clarified his or her own understanding of art by reexamining “art as concept” through acoustic, metaphysical, economic, cultural, and temporal lenses.
Our categories of inquiry related to art worlds and the individuals who comprise them, aesthetics and morality, cultural conventions of art making and institutions, the physical materials required for art, trends in art historiography, and the notion of artists as outliers. We read Tolstoy, Nicomachus, Kant, Hume, Rameau, Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Becker, and Weitz in an attempt to gauge the wetness of the water in which we swim as twenty-first-century art cogitators.
As students defined and defended their definitions of art, they proved ready for the second term: the Art Practicum.
The bedrock of the practicum is the proposition that making art requires both skill and knowledge. Knowledge and skills are communicated both verbally and non-verbally, and a master’s knowledge and skill involve articulable or inarticulable dimensions. The objective of this winter’s art practicum was to cultivate knowledge and skills relating to the performance, notation, and composition of music.
Over the term, we sought to understand the basic skills that master musicians have at their command when they create and perform artful music. Many of these skills are transmitted and apprehended by directly observing a proficient practitioner. Students started coming to grips with these skills by exploring the sound-producing capacity of a tin whistle, by learning to copy and interpret musical notation (and other graphic forms of musical representation), and by composing original music, an activity that integrates the former two skills.
An Excursion in Physiology
Philosophizing and making art are important dimensions of art as culture, but other crucial, though less often considered, factors are part of the story of art as well. For example, what kinds of anatomical structures allow human beings to physically realize concepts developed in the imagination? In order to pursue this question, the practicum students took a tour of the University of Oregon Human Physiology Laboratory. With latex gloves on hands, students observed human dissections and were allowed to hold several human brains, skulls, and other related structures.
While the question of where the mind stops and the body starts is by no means settled (at least in the realm of philosophy), we strode into the field of anatomy in order to get a glimpse of how it is that human beings can make art in the first place. While cultures change dramatically over decades and centuries, a Mozart symphony, Platonic dialogue, or Picasso painting could hardly have been conceived and documented without a primary motor cortex, hippocampus, or corpus callosum.
With a rudimentary understanding of how it is that human anatomy allows humans to do anything that can at some point be qualified at art, we endeavored to find out what kinds of art our anatomy allows us to do.
Meeting a Master
We ended up in the workshop of world-renowned luthier David Gusset. Gusset, a San Francisco transplant, has been honored in Europe and North America for his fine instruments, and he is a reputed builder and appraiser of violins (http://www.gussetviolins.com/).
Gusset has spent decades analyzing the botanical and geometrical composition of Guarneri and Stradivari instruments from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He has carefully laid out the proportions that these masters used for the design of their luxury instruments, and he reproduces their aesthetic with astounding fidelity. As a luthier, Gusset has had to develop incredible muscle control that allows him to shape wood in a way that reflects his Italian models. In addition to extraordinary motor control, Gusset has also developed a finely-tuned aural and visual acumen that allows him to evaluate the instruments that he makes. While the violin-making process is aided and documented with an extensive set of diagrams, numerical proportions, and qualitative descriptions, the “something” that makes an instrument finished enough for a master player is largely inarticulable.
Hours of scraping, sanding, bending, polishing, varnishing, carving, selecting, rejecting, and gluing combine to what many jealous violin makers would consider to be the zenith of the art. Yet, this morphological apotheosis would not be possible without a finely-honed aesthetic and the anatomy that allows it to be expressed in the physical world. Gutenberg students were allowed to play one of Gusset’s finished instruments, and it was immediately clear that this art is alive and well in the city of Eugene.
With a grasp on the brain and a sense of the violin, we proceeded to investigate musical notation. Now, this might seem rather pedestrian given that in our previous two excursions, the students held a human brain and played a world-class violin. But the truth is that in the world of music at least, art is largely communicable by a visual mechanism that we today call ‘notation’. Before Edison ever came up with the phonograph, and before youtube.com made musical ethnography immanently doable, Catholic monks in ninth-century St. Gall were attempting to document sound visually using what today are referred to as ‘neumes’ (neume is the Latin word for “gesture”).
In the twenty-first century, Western musical notation is an impressive constellation of signs and symbols that explains to the literate musician how loud or quiet, high or low, and long or short to produce sound. But what exactly is musical notation? Is it supposed to represent a sound? Is it supposed to be a set of instructions about where to place one’s fingers? Is notation supposed to be descriptive or prescriptive? Is it exhaustive or minimal?
The problem for contemporary musicians is, of course, that these questions are rarely asked until they are confronted with notation that looks like this:
from MS Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, Codex 121(1151) f. 1
The squiggling over the word “Alleluia” is musical notation, and it obviously looks nothing like what most literate twenty-first-century musicians are used to reading. And yet, these are visual cues that other musicians were expected to be able to interpret in the Middle Ages. Today, we must ask ourselves: What kind of symbols are these neumes? Do they tell a musician how loud, long, and low to make a sound? What is the system of interpreting these signs, and how does one know if he is getting it right?
There is no dearth of documents that include neumatic notation, but these documents are not self-interpreting. Interpretation requires oral-aural discourse and discussion, and the most important missing element in deciphering this notation is the oral tradition in which it thrived. The inarticulable dimensions of interpreting these neumes could be easily demonstrated by a cathedral’s cantor, but writing down exactly how the singer is supposed to make the voice is a much more complicated—if not impossible—matter.
The art of singing monophonic Latin plainchant in the ninth century was wrapped up in acknowledging and appropriately bending the rules set in place by a monastic community. In our modern age suffocated by documentation, we might presume an invariable degree of sameness with respect to the meaning of documents to the point where the notes are sacrosanct when it comes to music. For instance, no professional performer would be caught dead tinkering with the melodies of a Beethoven piano sonata or with the voice-leading of a Palestrina mass. This was not the approach that Medieval singers took when singing from these visual symbols. Of course, there were rules and boundaries when it came to doing the art in an acceptable way. But, there was a flexibility to these rules that rendered the aural realization of visual cues acceptable despite certain kinds of variations that singers introduced.
We examined many facsimile copies of these old manuscripts in the Knight Library until forensic calligrapher Anne Merydith explained the nuances of how aesthetics of calligraphy in the Middle Ages informed how the neumes were shaped. The width of the nib (quill tip) determined how tall the letters would be, and writing became crammed together in an attempt to save space as the Middle Ages progressed. Writing music was much more expensive in the Middle Ages than it is today. For example, in order to produce a book that could be neumatic, virtually an entire herd of sheep had to be slaughtered before the bookmaker had enough vellum to assemble a chant book.
Written language is something whose function can be easily taken for granted. We see shapes on a page; we can sound them out phonetically so that those around us can understand what they mean. Whether neumatic or alphabetical, visual cues on a page cue anatomical requirements that make the notion of art a physical reality.
The Big Picture
The idea must first become physicalized: the motion of documenting the artistic idea on a piece of paper or some other medium. The musician must have an instrument or voice by which to reproduce the visually-represented idea. The auditory cortex must then experience and process the reproduced visually-represented idea. And the cycle repeats.
At Gutenberg, the study of art is a philosophical, anatomical, and lexical process that requires students to closely analyze much more than mere aesthetics. At Gutenberg, students learn how to think about art in a variety of contexts, and they investigate the very foundations of art-making.
Eliot Grasso joined the Gutenberg faculty in September 2012. He has a Ph.D. in musicology, is an accomplished musician, and teaches art classes at Gutenberg. To learn more about Eliot, visit his website, www.eliotgrasso.com.