Art explained in a book

29 May

I always wondered what art exactly was and how art and commerce are related. That was, until I read the book “On the Origin of Stories” by Brian Boyd.

Mr. Boyd builds on the accomplishments of evolutionary biology, and his title refers to the book by Charles Darwin “On the Origin of Species.” On the Origin of Stories is not as Earth shattering as the book by Darwin, but it offers a science-based framework of thought for literary critics, as opposed to the somewhat dogmatic approach of Theory.

I will not do a book review, because others have done a better job at that than I ever could. However, I would like to point out that Boyd’s book has taught me new concepts about art.

Published art (which I refer to as “art” in the remainder of this post) is all about getting attention from the artist’s point of view, and giving attention from the audience point of view. Since time is limited, the amount of attention we can give is limited. This means that artworks that attract more attention will receive a higher status, and by attribution, the artist will share in this status.

I make this distinction, because the creator of an artwork is not necessary the performer. In fact, an artwork may be created by several individuals, as is the case with Hollywood movies. The “performance” of such a movie (read: screening) does not require the creators to be physically present, even if they could be. By being mentioned in the credits, the contributing artists share in the possible success of the movie by attribution (in case you were wondering why credits exist in the first place).

Since people can only spend so much of their free time on paying attention to art, there will be a natural struggle for the most attention, based on people’s preferences (on what they like). This, of course, is a set-up for an evolutionary struggle among works of art (as it were, “survival of the fittest”), where the prevailing “taste du jour” will attract the most attention, while those who don’t will remain largely unknown and receive a lower status.

However, like evolution, in times of rapid change, established works may become less popular, while relatively unknown works, though with a loyal following, might rise in the ranks (get more public attention, hence a higher status). Since artists are constantly creating new works of art, a higher status of one of their older works will raise the status of both the current work and the artists themselves. We all know this phenomena of the unknown artist being discovered by the public.

Mind you, it is not that the discovered artist has somehow forced the discovery by a sudden change in style (if that’s even possible, because a major change in personal style takes a long time), but rather that the changed circumstances have made the art appealing to a larger public. It seems that audience preferences can change faster than personal artist styles. This means rather than trying to chase what is popular now, the artist better develop their own styles to perfection, so in case they are discovered, the artist can follow up with new works of art.

Now I’m repeating something I posted on my Google Buzz account.

Art is about personal preference, appeal. Artists try to get attention from an audience, and get rewarded with a higher status by that audience. In fact, audience attention is equal to status. This means it predates economics, perhaps even humans.

So, basically, art can exist without money. Even people who don’t use money (e.g. toddlers) appreciate art and artists. I think this means the main motivator for art should be appeal. Money is just a derivative of that appeal (as a token of appreciation).

Once money becomes the main drive behind art, as always is the case with commercial entities, its appeal can’t but deteriorate. Art appeal is about novelty, surprise, invention, something which gives meaning beyond the boundaries of the particular work and becomes the center of attention in people’s lives.

This is why, in my opinion, artistic endeavors and business concerns should be strictly separated if an artist wants to become —and remain— successful. The business side should merely exist to serve artists, to provide them with a source of income. Art should never be about making money.

While art by committee isn’t necessarily bad, it often devolves into that because the focus shifts from attracting attention towards maintaining the size of an audience. And the latter doesn’t appeal to many people, I’m afraid.

While I’m still digesting the content of “On the Origin of Stories”, I can already see some of the benefits of having read this book. I highly recommend reading it, especially if you struggle with some of the same questions I did: “What is art, and why should I care?”

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2 Responses to “Art explained in a book”

  1. gonzalexx May 29, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    Great insight, Rene! Having had the benefit of some of your thoughts through time, and this last “buzz” interchange, I can see how good a general exploration is for the soul, and for understanding how art is viewed… humanity’s perspective, as it were. I’ve always viewed art as a personal thing… you like what you like, and that’s it… who cares about what the rest of the world thinks. I like this last approach because it frees me of outside thought influences, but it may be a bit irresponsible and egotistical of me… like… who cares if you don’t like jalapenos, I do, and that’s what matters… (bad analogy, I know). But, the influence of the world, and its attention span, and its commercialism has an effect on the art one sees, and you have to take that into account. Like with most things… its a balance you have to keep in mind. I still like to view art in a personal perspective, no matter what folks say… but it is now peppered with the notion of “where it comes from”… and I do like jalapenos no matter the faces folks make when I say that. :)
    OK… enough uneducated ranting.
    I liked your thoughts and they help a lot.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Rene May 29, 2010 at 2:52 pm #

    Well, I haven’t gone into art creation or art appreciation, why people make art (on a personal level) and why people like certain art and not others.

    I think the evolutionary processes of artworks, filling all possible niches, as described in the book happens independent if people are aware of it or not. It has been happening for at least since the first cave paintings.

    The book also goes briefly into how art was “confiscated” by religion and how the advent of science has severed that connection.

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