15 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (iii)

...that the development of art historically has its parallel in the development of the individual, and that human infants exhibit, without embarrassment, many characteristics we find most marked [25] in the artist--above all a certain innocent self-love, which makes him regard his own productions as precious and worthy of attention. Without that fundamental vanity, man might never have had sufficient respect for the materials of symbolism to transform them into works of art--works taking stable form under and exacting discipline, and so capable of influencing the feelings and conduct of other men. (24-25)

Here is the old saw, artists as infantile. We find certain infantile traits "most marked" in the artist; they are noticeable, then, but are they determinative? Essential?

Whatever LM means precisely by "innocent self-love," whatever is "fundamental" about his notion of the infant-artist's "fundamental vanity," one can certainly confirm the resemblance anecdotally, and perhaps copiously in certain milieux (e.g. art school). I would, however, caution against defining artisthood this way; that is, to move from correlation to causation, as many in the post-Freudian continuum did. Creativity is one of those traits of children that lead armchair psychologists to trumpet the value of staying young at heart; but for every one of these traits there are a handful of others which are handicaps to artists much the same as they are to any other adult. I cannot help but think here of the popular, movie-made image of Mozart as against that of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, or dozens of other Grown Ass Men and Women whose art has outlived them. Perhaps, then, it would be better to say that the arts are a sector where it is easier get away with not growing up, especially if you're talented (true of most fields), or even if you're not (I think this is the biggest difference).

By locating "sufficient respect for the materials of symbolism" as arising only from the artist's vanity, LM makes out "stable form" and "exacting discipline" to be quite the chores. By this account, a socially maladaptive/pathological trait (infantilism) is in fact well-adapted to and defined as normal within the world of art. The mind of the artist, this child's mind in an adult's body, could never find "discipline" rewarding in and of itself, but if discipline is what it takes to sate the artist's vanity, then it is a means to an end which will be milked for all its worth. I have known and worked with several people like this, generally for short periods of time.

Of course no sooner has the infant-artist axis been established than LM reveals a schema for an artistic maturation process (a deep-psychological one, in contrast to the merely behavioristic observations which precede). In the highest stage the artist "lose[s] himself in [the] act" of creation, which has become all about "begetting fresh forms of life," the work becoming "itself an independent force", etc. This all sounds lovely, but it's not clear (nor is it ever really addressed) that there is any real correlation between good intentions, good artists, and good art. I would question whether creation and reception have ever been well-integrated enough to bear the weight of the prescriptions he issues for them here. For LM it is the second of three stages, the "adolescent," during which "exhibitionism passes into communication." To the contrary, I would argue that "communication" per se is essentially a branch of technics, not art. To speak of communication rather than something more vague or euphemistic, to speak of symbols rather than signals, is precisely to hone in on "that manifestation of art from which a large part of the human personality has been excluded." Communication is the technical end to which language is merely the most capable and nuanced means; art is also nuanced but not nearly so capable. To define art and artisthood as literally communicative points, ironically, toward the fully-rationalized world LM writes against. This is art-ontological technics run amok, elevating a more technical, tractable function over fuzzier ones, and conflating concreteness of expression with maturity of purpose.


Stefan Kac said...

Richard Sennett
The Fall of Public Man

"The immense literature on play tends to fall in two schools. One treats play as a form of cognitive activity; it examines how children form symbols through their play and how these symbols become more complex as children at play grow older. The other school treats play as behavior, is less concerned with symbol formation, and concentrates on how children learn cooperation, express aggression, and tolerate frustration through playing together.

"Those in the cognitive camp have occasionally shown an interest in the relationship of play to creative work, but these forays have suffered on two accounts. One is that many writers have identified play and "the creative act" as virtually synonymous; the strict adherents of Freud have done so in imitation of such sentiments as the following from their master:

The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of fantasy which he takes very seriously, that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion, while separating it sharply from reality. . . .

—a dictum which led Freud to the conclusion that

The opposite of play is not what is serious but what it real.

Those whose studies of play have led them question this Freudian opposition of play-creativity to reality often phrase their arguments in equal if opposite terms. Play and creativity are spoken of as "at work in reality, not on it," as a process of drawing logical connections which cannot be drawn by the particular processes of deductive logic, and so forth. But the play and creativity are spoken of interchangeably still. Thus it becomes difficult to distinguish the specific qualitative differences between a child who, banging on the black keys of the piano, suddenly discovers they form a pentatonic scale, and Debussy, who, one summer doing finger exercises, discovers possibilities in the pentatonic scale none of his contemporaries had before imagined. To say the two activities are similar in kind easily meshes into saying they are "fundamentally" the same, and then an essential quality in each realm becomes obscured: judgment. If Debussy is "fundamentally" playing around the same way as a child, the quality of his judgment about his experiments with the pentatonic scale is obliterated; "any child could do it." But the point is, no child could."

(p. 316)

Stefan Kac said...

William Stephenson
The Play Theory of Mass Communication
(1987 edition)
(orig. 1967)

"Pope wrote with no thought of hurt or gain...he was having fun, as a child has when it plays. If we are so minded, and so open to joy, reading the poem gives us the selfsame satisfactions. And this is the core of our theory."
(pp. 199-200)