Friday, December 30, 2011

“Is Art a Superstition, or a Way of Life?” (Part 2)

“Let us now take for granted the historically normal and religiously orthodox view that, just as ethics is the ‘right way of doing things,’ so art is the ‘making well of whatever needs making,’ or simply ‘the right way of making things:’ and still addressing ourselves to those [who]…ask whether art is not after all a necessity.

A necessity is something that we cannot afford to do without, whatever its price. We cannot go into questions of price here, except to say that art need not be, and should not be expensive, except to the extent that costly materials are employed. It is at this point that the crucial question arises of manufacture for profit versus manufacture for use. It is because the idea of manufacture for profit is bound up with the currently accepted industrial sociology that things in general are not well made and therefore also not beautiful. It is the manufacturer’s interest to produce what we like, or can be induced to like, regardless of whether or not it will agree with us…. Manufacturers and other artists alike resort to advertisement; art is abundantly advertised in schools and colleges, by ‘Museums of Modern Art,’ and by art dealers; and artist and manufacturer both alike price their wares according to what the traffic will bear. [….] It is only when the maker of things is a maker of things by vocation, and not merely holding down a job, that the price of things approximate to their real value; and under these circumstances, when we pay for a work of art designed to serve a necessary purpose, we get our money’s worth; and the purpose being a necessary one, we must be able to afford to pay for the art, or else we are living below a normal human standard; as most men are now living, even the rich, if we consider quality rather than quantity. Needless to add that the workman is also victimised by a manufacture for profit; so that it has become a mockery to say to him that hours of work should be more enjoyable than hours of leisure….

Industry without art is brutality. Art is specifically human. None of those primitive peoples, past or present, whose culture we affect to despise and propose to amend, has dispensed with art; from the stone age onwards, everything made by man, under whatever conditions of hardship or poverty, has been made by art to serve a double purpose, at once utilitarian and ideological. It is we who, collectively speaking at least, command amply sufficient resources, who have first proposed to make a division of art, one sort to be barely utilitarian, the other luxurious, and altogether omitting what was once the highest function of art, to express and to communicate ideas. It is long since sculpture was thought of as the poor man’s ‘book.’ [….]

…[T]he whole business of ‘collecting’ and the ‘love of art’ are no more than a sentimental aberration and means of escape from the serious business of life. 
…[M]erely to cultivate the higher things of life, if art be such, in hours of leisure to be obtained by a further substitution of mechanical for manual means of production, is as much a vanity as the cultivation of religion for religion’s sake on Sundays only could ever be; and…the pretensions of the modern artist are fundamentally wishful and egotistic. [….]

As to fame, it need only be pointed out that the greater part of the greatest art of the world has been produced anonymously, and that if any workman has only fame in view, ‘any proper man ought to be ashamed for good people to know this of him.’ And as to art, to say that the artist works for art is an abuse of language. Art is that by which a man works, supposing that he is in possession of his art and has the habit of his art; just as prudence or conscience is that by which he acts well. Art is no more the end of his work than prudence the end of his conduct.

It is only because under the conditions established in a system of production for profit rather than for use we have forgotten the meaning of the word ‘vocation,’ and think only in terms of ‘jobs,’ that such confusions as these are possible. The man who has a ‘job’ is working for ulterior motives, and may be quite indifferent to the quality of the product, for which he is not responsible; all that he wants in this case is to secure an adequate share of the expected profits. But one whose vocation is specific, that is to say who is naturally and constitutionally adapted to and trained in some one or another kind of making, even though he earns his living by this making, is really doing what he likes most; and if he is forced by circumstance to do some other kind of work, even though more highly paid, is actually unhappy. The vocation, whether it be that of the farmer or the architect, is a function; the exercise of this function as regards the man himself is the most indispensable means of spiritual development, and as regards to his relation to society the measure of his worth. It is precisely in this way that as Plato says, ‘more will be done, and with more ease, when everyone does but one thing, according to his genius; and this is justice to each man himself.’ It is the tragedy of a society industrially organized for profit that this justice to each man in himself is denied him; and that any such society literally and inevitably plays the Devil with the rest of the world.

The basic error in what we have called the illusion of culture is the assumption that art is something to be done by a special kind of man, and particularly that kind of man we call a genius. In direct opposition to this is the normal and humane view that art is simply the right way of making things, whether symphonies or airplanes. The normal view assumes, in other words, not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler and parasite is necessarily some special kind of artist, skilled and well contented in making or arranging of some one thing or another according to his constitution and training. [….]

What the class thinker who is not merely an underdog, but also a man, has a right to demand is…the opportunity to take as great a pleasure in doing whatever he does for hire, as he takes in his own garden or family life; what he should demand, in other words, is the opportunity to be an artist. No civilisation that can be accepted that denies him this.”—Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (New York: Dover, 1956 [originally published in 1943 under the title, Why Exhibit Works of Art?])


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