Friday, August 28, 2009

Does art happen?

How does a work of art happen? Is an artwork an event? At what point does it begin? At what point does it end? If it did not somehow first begin in the mind of its composer, the artwork would never come to be. If it did not come to be (quite literally in medias res, in a proper medium), it would not be a work of art. Once the work of art is finished, however, is it actually "over"? To the contrary, does it not persist in a secondarily autonomous way to be admired or criticized by others?

I raise these questions merely to ponder how well art fits in the schema of "normal" (i.e., efficient) causality. Does not art embody and submit to a different kind of causation than mere physical and material events? Admitting, as I do, that the causal dynamics of art do not exclude or escape the interwoven dynamics of efficient causality, does not amount to saying art merely is an efficient-causal phenomenon. I may be able to account for all the atomic and photochemical properties in the rigorously determined causal chain of an artwork's material composition, but this does not mean I grasp the work of art as an expression or as a statement. The subject––the formal order––of an artwork is clearly distinct from its material composition; this is why we can recognize a "shabby" reproduction of, say, "The Last Supper," without thereby denigrating "The Last Supper" as a famous work of art.

Again, it seems that works of art somehow transcend the normal bounds of temporal causation. Just what are the spatiotemporal bounds of a work of art? Does a piece of music really only "happen" while its being played? It seems that the inherent beauty of the world as a "composed heterogeneity" points towards its metaphysical origin as being transcendent to its internal, material composition. The strong anthropic principle seems to do little work here, since, analogously, while an aesthetic materialist might say we only recognize as works of art those objects which happen to trigger our sensory equipment in certain ways, yet his deflationary anthropocentrism does not negate the existence of an artist who caused the objects to be arranged as they actually are. As Mildred Bakan writes in Body and Mind (ed. R. W. Rieber, pp. 135–136):

[A physicalist] conception of the relation of physiology to the study of the mind is something like seeking to understand art by a study of the physical principles of colors and sounds. …[T]he artist's intent… functions something like a final cause, which, without violating the laws of physics and chemistry, is nevertheless not reducible to them either. The artist's intent is informed by a sense of the future and of the possible and actual coherence of his materials in terms of their felt qualities. If mind plays something of this role with respect to the body, then physiological study will not provide the clues we need.

Thinkering in progress…

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