Form and Content

What is Art About Now?

by Frederick Turner

In October at Jacob Collins’s splendid Grand Central Academy of Art, in New York Citythe Derriere Guard held its tenth anniversary festival. The Derriere Guard is a group of artists and writers in various genres and media—music, painting, poetry, sculpture, architecture, the performing arts, etc.—committed to reforming and revitalizing aesthetic culture through recovery of the traditional forms and genres and concerns of the arts. The Derriere Guard is a vital representative of the movement sometimes called the New Classicism, led with wit, effervescence and energetic intelligence by the composer Stefania de Kenessey. One of the main areas of discussion at the festival was the challenge posed by the very successes of the movement. We had, we felt, definitely made an impact in the last ten years. The traditional crafts and techniques of the arts were back on the agenda. Artists need no longer apologize for making music with real melody, paintings and sculpture with recognizable subjects, poetry with rhyme, meter, and clear stories, plays in which the audience can engage with the feelings of the imagined characters, novels with discernible and suspense-filled plots, buildings with humane proportions, inviting ornament and intuitively oriented functional spaces.
True, the proponents of tuneless music, conceptual art, L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. P.O.E.T.R.Y., the alienation effect, the plotless novel and inhuman architectural spaces are still everywhere in charge of important organs of the culture. But the new classical movement is now a respectable minority presence. It has no intellectually or aesthetically effective opposition. Four years ago, Stanley Fish declared that Theory was dead. The collapse of postmodernism can be traced to its inability to tell a coherent and engaging story. And everywhere lip-service is paid once more to the crafts of the arts.
Does this mean that the Derriere Guard’s mission is over, that it might now fold up its tattered and Quixotic banners, and go home? Not necessarily. There is a malaise of the contemporary mainstream, a sort of navel-gazing or wheel-spinning. Often in the standard postmodern offerings, but even, too, in some well-crafted new classicist art, there is a kind of hothouse introspection and self-concern. There are novels about novels and novelists, musical pieces about music, poems about poetry and poets, paintings and sculpture about paintings and sculpture, plays about plays—and even plays about plays about Broadway plays—and buildings about architecture.
The fact that these works are about anything at all is surely an advance on the most brutal late-modernist aesthetics, which asserted that a work of art should not mean but be, as in Clement Greenberg’s insistence on “purity” and “flatness” in painting. “Aboutness” is the quality recognized by philosophers as the key characteristic of mind itself—their word for it is intentionality, from a Latin root meaning the act of pointing at something. In the words of Daniel Dennett and John Haugeland: “a belief can be about icebergs, but an iceberg is not about anything; an idea can be about the number 7, but the number 7 is not about anything.” Mindless objects are not about anything, have no intentionality; it is only the realm of mind that can contain things that are about things. But this universe, it seemed in 1900, was a world of mindless matter. Twentieth-century modernism inherited from nineteenth-century physical science an age of materialism. Modernism could scarcely go in any other direction than abstraction—which, at its “purest” is not about anything—if it was to keep faith with its commitment to be cutting-edge.
But is it enough for art to be “about” art? Tom Wolfe’s speech at the Derriere Guard festival perceptively (and hilariously) pointed out the silliness of the worst examples of such a program. The arts, we felt, needed to recover their ancient realms of relevance—they needed to get back their content. The American Heritage Dictionary defines content as follows: “Something contained, as in a receptacle. Often used in the plural: the contents of my desk drawer; the contents of an aerosol can.” Related meanings include:

1. The individual items or topics that are dealt with in a publication or document. Often used in the plural: a table of contents.
2. The material, including text and images, which constitutes a publication or document.
3. The substantive or meaningful part: “The brain is hungry not for method but for content, especially content which contains generalizations that are powerful, precise, and explicit.” [That sentence in the dictionary is a quotation from one of my own essays.]
4. The meaning or significance of a literary or artistic work.

This directs our attention toward what may be the next mission of the new classical movement in general and that of the Derriere Guard in particular. Content is what “aboutness” is about, what intentionality points at, what ideas, knowledge, beliefs, dreams, hopes contain.
The moment one applies this thought to the contemporary art scene, one is struck by a sense of appalling waste. Here around us in the early twenty-first century lies an astonishing abundance of potential content, almost untouched. How could artists have failed to seize it and make it into art? Contemporary mainstream art does still cover a few politically correct topics of content, but they are mostly superannuated from causes ripely exploited by the arts over a century ago—the human effect on the natural environment, so eloquently celebrated by Blake, Wordsworth and the Hudson River School; the horrors of war, examined in depth from Homer onward; the roles of women, explored by Ibsen, Verdi and Hardy, not to speak of Shakespeare; the scourges of racism and colonialism, as in Twain and Conrad. But where in the high arts are the special problems and aspirations and experiences of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries?
How brilliantly the great artists of the nineteenth century represented to us the taste, smell, feel, idiom, hopes, jokes, ideas of their time! Think of Renoir’s al fresco lunches by the river, Dickens’s London scenes, Flaubert’s Yonville, Goya’s war-torn Spain, the Eiffel Tower, Twain’s Mississippi, Beethoven’s exact description of the emotions of 1812, Gilbert and Sullivan’s perfect rendering of the flavor of Victorian humor. Have the fine arts done the same for our own times? Shakespeare said that the aim of art was “To hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” At the climax of the Derriere Guard festival, there was a triumphant foretaste of what might be done by contemporary artists in embodying content, in being about something: the performance of three arias from Stefania de Kenessey’s new opera in progress, The Bonfire of the Vanities. As Tom Wolfe quipped at the time, it was high art’s revenge for the Hollywood movie of the book. Emotionally powerful, it literally brought tears to the eyes of the audience; it was utterly timely, catching as did the novel the exact flavor of the New York of the 1980s; it was passionately melodic.
If one were to argue (together with Plato and Greenberg) that mere representation is at a further remove from truth than physical reality itself, the response from contemporary science is, I believe, conclusive. We now know that it is not only human beings but also many other species of higher animals that think and feel and communicate symbolically—“aboutness” is a signature not just of human beings but of apes, parrots, dolphins and dogs, to name but a few of the better-studied species. Several species other than ours have now been credited with “theory of mind”—the ability to imagine what another animal is thinking, and the acme of intentionality. But even plants will make leaves that mimic the shape and color of butterflies to prevent real butterflies from laying eggs on them. Though one need not attribute theory of mind to the individual plant, it is hard to avoid attributing it to the genome of the plant as a whole, slowly thinking out its clever responses over generations. Natural selection is the mechanism of that thought, as electrochemical neural firings and the potentiation of synapses are of ours, but the thinking is not reducible to its mechanism. The mimicking leaf is surely about the butterfly in some dim sense.
Quantum theory itself contains an assumption that the state of knowledge within a physical system materially affects its manifestation (as a wave or particle, for instance). Everything in the universe is a more or less elaborated map of everything else; everything represents everything else in some way. Thus physical reality cannot be robbed of its “aboutness” without being robbed of its reality. Dennett and Haugeland may not be quite right about the absoluteness in practice of the line between intentionality and intentionlessness; even icebergs, by virtue of their participation in the registering and taking account of the rest of the world, may possess more “aboutness” than numbers do. Certainly what has more intentionality can be reduced to what has less—it happens in war, in genocidal concentration camps, in the felling of a forest, in the extinction of a species. The role of art is surely not to emulate these achievements, however impressive the technology of their modern versions, but rather to give more life and meaning and intentionality to what has less.
Even music, an art that is often cited as not being about anything, not noted for any mimetic capacity to represent or refer, can now be understood as having a content. Everybody accepts that melody has an emotional effect, but it is only recently that emotions have been studied closely enough to reveal that they are more than just a physiological effect or coloring. They are a content in themselves, indeed a major one. When the emotions of animals and humans are studied systematically in the light of evolutionary biology and game theory, it becomes clear that emotions are the rationality of the species, as calculating self-interest is the rationality of the individual. Emotions make us do things that are not in our individual interest but that collectively add up to species survival. Without the sexual emotions, what living thing would go to the bother of reproduction? Without territoriality, how would a species space itself out to avoid destroying its ecological niche? Without jealousy, how would spouses police the pair-bond that ensures the nurture and protection of the young? Without vengefulness, a very expensive burden for an individual, how would cheaters and defectors be sanctioned in a cooperative species? The emotions are powerful policies, even a sort of description of the world in which survival has to be attempted.
Recently, the close study of prosody, made possible by improved equipment for recording and analysing sound, has shown how essential prosody—stress, rhythm and pitch—are in defining the meaning of sentences, even in languages that are not lexically tonal (like Chinese). “The dog bit the man” implies that it was not the cat that did so; “the dog bit the man” implies that it did not scratch him; “the dog bit the man” implies that it did not bite the woman or the boy. With a rising inflection at the end, the sentence is now an inquiry, conveying a lack of certain knowledge. Almost every idiomatic phrase carries its own tune. If a phrase like “if I had only known” or “you didn’t know that I was there” or “so glad to have been of service” is plucked out of a recording of a conversation, and repeated on its own a few times until the listener is no longer paying attention to its meaning but to the sound it makes, it will suddenly be heard as a little tune or melody. The great song-writers know this: “The rain it raineth every day” or “strawberry fields forever” already suggests a whole musical composition.
Intonation is in spoken speech is perhaps the most powerful means of conveying emotional content. Thus we can understand music itself as the quintessential art of “aboutness,” of meaning, intentionality, content. Because its content is a fine elaboration of the thinking of the species, rather than of the individual, we do not recognize it as content in the linguistic sense—but language itself, we now know, has the same species-based kind of meaning in its prosody. Poetry is the art of tunefully meaningful words, the speaking of the species. It was only the age of the typewriter that deceived us into thinking that poetry was anything else.
So the formal means of the arts already suggest the need for content, whether cognitive or emotional. In visual art, the formal discipline of drawing conveys a content to the effect that the close meditation on the world around us in its particularity is itself a spiritually formative activity, and perhaps even constitutive of reality itself, a co-creating of the universe. In architecture, the classical disciplines provide a vocabulary for organizing the story of a person’s movement through a space, a movement that can have a moral meaning and an intense emotional content of anticipation, concealment and revelation, of initiation into a mystery, liberation into a new view of the world or simply the essential sense of dwelling and home. In dance and figural sculpture, the human body cannot help but speak with the least turn of a finger or swell of a muscle. The very task of learning a craft is designed to have important moral and psychological effects on us—an acceptance of disciplined attentiveness, a training of the soul into a love of shapeliness and beauty. We have at our disposal—partly because of the defensive curatorship of the new classical movement—a superb set of pan-human traditional aesthetic instruments, of craft and technique, for the vivid and insightful presentation of content. So what is the content that offers itself to the artist of the twenty-first century?
There has been a revolution in the idea of nature itself. It is now seen as free and branchy, not linear and deterministic. The universe is increasingly alive to our perception, from active ecosystems to the unpredictable energy of the quantum vacuum. Everything in the universe seems to be computing, adapting itself through programmable calibrations of the junctions where information is exchanged; the world is filling up once more with what amount to natural spirits, from the genomes of animals and plants to watersheds, storm systems and the stock market. All of this new conceptual material cries out for articulation in the lucidly intelligible languages of the classical arts.
The exploration of computational difficulty and the mathematical study of scheduling problems have put time back into physical science—time is computational difficulty and the overheating of overloaded information-processing circuits.We feel physical time in our thighs from the cooking laptop. The future is once again unpredictable by science. How should artists respond?
If the universe is alive and free and generative of meaning, the stance of existentialism is no longer valid—or at least that part of it that postulates a meaningless and deterministic universe, where human freedom and authenticity can be asserted only by some random gratuitous act of whim. So much of art and literature of the last hundred years has been a narrative whose moral is the need to do so and thus find a new life of the senses and a purely phenomenological mode of knowledge. But if all of nature is free, then our own freedom is not a stranger there, and there is no need to fight nature. As environmentalists tell us, we have been fighting it too long anyway.
We don’t need the supernatural and the essential now as a remote refuge for the free and spiritual. But we don’t need to reject essences and the supernatural either: Nature is always already transcending itself, generating new essences—and becomes routinely supernatural relative to its former nature. The supernatural is not remote and alien, but here around us all the time.
In neuroscience, we have become aware of the distributed nature of our intelligence and identity, and the exquisite physical mechanisms of its process. In the science of ecology we have come to recognize ourselves not only as another natural species but as having an important role in nature itself—to perceive it and to assist its evolution and dissemination. In theology, there are exciting developments in the incorporation of evolution and process into the divine activity; most interesting of all, perhaps, is the implication that the universe was itself originated in an act of divine kenosis, of sacrifice and delegation of agency over to the creation, so that it be free to create itself.
In the realm of society, we now have profoundly new phenomena—multi-racial and multicultural market democracies with their own remarkable and protean hybridizations, from anime and manga to fusion cuisine and world music. A whole new demographic cohort has emerged—the healthy, wealthy, mobile and numerous old, often to some degree prosthetically enhanced, who are creating their own subcultures and exploring a world-experience never before examined by the arts. In economics, we are faced with the coming prospect of a single capitalist world system, the rapid emergence of such economic giants as India and China, and the rise of the formerly socialist economies all over the world. The old narrative of liberation from capitalism is being replaced by a new one of liberation by capitalism—and what is our artistic response?
In politics, we have met the most radical challenge of all to the liberal system of free debate, human rights, objective science and democracy: the coherent, powerful and bloody ideology of radical Islam. The consensus of free democratic societies is being tested to destruction by terrorism. Meanwhile a new regionalism is emerging, as new or would-be nations such as Belarus, Flanders, Scotland, Quebec, Slovakia, Irian Jaya, and Kurdistan, explore or anticipate the joys and agonies of independence. No less than Athens in the crisis of the Peloponnesian Wars, we are at a crossroads of civilization that demands the Herculean imaginative efforts of the likes of Aeschylus, Iktinos, Polykleitos, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Pheidias, Pindar, Euripides.
Even if we set aside the continuing drama of the exploration of the planets, the world of technology has much rich material to offer the arts. Whole new economies and cultures now exist in the purely notional realm of cyberspace—Warcraft, Second Life, MySpace—with their own currencies, terminology, and lifestyles. Game theory is revolutionizing the study of economics, the biological evolution of behavior, morality, emotion, warfare, law, and the brain. If the new classicism needs a mission, it need not look far. We have got the tools back and a whole world of new material lies before us.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2008, Volume 25, Number 1