Spoiler alert! Some pretentious quoting:
‘I hate when art becomes a religion.’ – Woody Allen
‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’ – Aristotle
‘I saw the best minds of my generation accept jobs on the fringes of the entertainment industry.’ – from ‘Autograph Man’ by Zadie Smith
‘The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’ – Pablo Picasso
What is art? It is a question almost as old as time. Time was an old wooden ship built around 1973, in case you didn’t know. Now, that last piece of interesting information may suggest that I am no expert in the theory of aesthetics. I am humble enough to admit that this may or may not almost certainly be the case. Wink wink cough cough. What I have been able to glean from the internet and ‘reading’ (quotations intended) have brought me to the conclusion that the reason why humanity loves to produce, discuss and look at art is definite, if not always definable. Yes, that did make sense, you just have to think harder.
I’ve heard rumours that art is a product of mankind’s fourth hunger. Say what? That’s what I thought as well. Hegel (he really is awesome) did some discussing on the subject. The first three are obvious. They include our appetite for survival, pleasure and for positive acknowledgement from others, real or imaginary. The fourth hunger is the fun one and from it comes our existential angst. It originates from that next level of intelligence and with great power comes great responsibility – all things are a double edged sword. We may be able to construct cities, but we are perpetually hounded by the query ‘who are we? Why are we here?’ Here’s a video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK2B5ffWR6g and a picture of Zoolander.
Humanity spends endless amounts of time trying to work all this out. Especially those members of this species who live with food in their fridges and the Kardashians on their tellies (TVs for you Americans), seeing as their time isn’t occupied with surviving. Art attempts to bridge that gap – between man’s every day life and the greater question, the purpose of it all. Yet this is also an attempt to know that which is unknowable, that which we are searching to comprehend.
In Platonic philosophy (the guy, not the ‘friendly love’ stuff) there was the concept of phenomenon, a.k.a. that which is physically manifested. The ying to this yang is the noumenon which was another way of talking about the world of ideas, something which is known to the mind but not known to the senses. You can’t touch it, you can’t hear it and you can’t smell it. Kant said that a noumenal world may exist, but remains something that man may never know. Hence why I bring it into the conversation here. Art may be that attempt to connect man with that unknowable sphere, and with that connection bring some meaning and purpose to our lives.
Is art really this lofty? Ultimately, it is sold for money, the product of its creator, used for survival, so maybe it isn’t. Well, I think it is (and there’s nothing you can do about it – Mulan). Considering the number of poor artists, a large of whom died in poverty, all of them chasing that higher emotion and trying to make sense of the earth which they inhabited and whether or not there was a man living in the clouds, it seems that they aspired to some lofty kind of thinking. Lofty enough to make penury justifiable, anyways.
Art is humanity trying to 1. express and thereby be heard in some way; 2. create, because man loves to create (I could bring in some Marx here but I’ve already spent too much time chit chatting and you probably had some lego or building blocks as child so I don’t really need to either) and 3. work out what the hell is going on. This may be from a social commentary point of view, with the artist trying to expose what he/she/it thinks is morally wrong (example: Dickens and the mistreatment of children). It may be the artist trying to express some inner turmoil. It could also be the artist trying to capture some moment, or physical beauty. It could also be our path to experiencing, with appropriate awe, the extraordinary world which we have in part found (also known as nature) and in part created (also known as society or culture). I like this last bit quite a lot. Art is often the attempt to bridge one’s reality, the given state and our emotional responses to it.
And yet, what is the most important part of the last paragraph? The part which wasn’t even written out loud in funny little symbols? It is that the artist is intending to produce something of truth and authenticity. Tolstoy believed that true art is that which is sincere and it is this sincerity which becomes infectious.
I love that. I agree with that. Art often tries to denote some truth, whether it is societal, spiritual, religious, natural or emotional. It is the attempt to reveal the ungraspable of human feeling, in any of these contexts or inspired by any of these contexts, and to communicate that emotion through artistic work. It is also the human attempt to speak of some truth, to communicate this, not simply to note it down for it to pass into oblivion, never seen or read, but to find a voice, to be heard.
There’s one issue though. Imagine you have a core of something true and genuine, which emits an energy and light. It’s pretty isn’t it? Yes. Yes it is. Now look to your left. And now look to your right. You’ll start to notice that other people have begun to look at the light also. As time progresses these people begin to form a structure around that light, that exciting energy. They begin to form social circles, social structures. They do not always emit a light or energy. Some produce a mild glow, an ambient energy but they’re still feeding off that central pivoting humming ball of vitality, which sits at the centre of these growing layers and layers of stunned human watchers. These human watchers begin to produce their own art, and then others become sellers of the art, marketers of the art, critics of the art but it isn’t the central, authentic art, emitting rays right at the heart of all these other people. These human watchers begin to look inward, at their own circles of art production, of pale imitation or mutilation of the original art, the truthful, sincere art at the centre of them all. You tend to find the majority of this in cities. Possibly because there are so many people and possibly because without nature, mankind becomes very self-obsessed (more so than usual) and ever so slightly unbalanced (instead of unbalanced, please read ‘deranged’).
Tolstoy reckoned that this human watching phenomena I’m talking about (not the ancient greek phenomenon we were previously jabbering on about) was generated when man lived artificially. In other words, when he lived apart from Nature, in cities and without a connection to the organic world. Preeetty much what I just pointed out, but I guess Tolstoy got there first. Being dead before I was even born, but whatever. People who lived this way (in cities) became furred up like a very old kettle, unable to recognize what was true Art. Arguably, anyone could create any old horse poop painting and call it art. People would be taken in by such actions, fawning over it (even if behind closed doors they said things like ‘I don’t really get it’). Tolstoy believed that urbanites were unable to see the clues which signify the honesty of artistic expression, looking to others to guide them as to what was/is good art and what was/is bad art. I think it is possibly more than that though. It is also that people become wrapped up in what others say, in what others think. Only the right people can say whether something is engaging or artistically erudite, or an old horse poop painting. Tolstoy was much more egalitarian in his thinking and believed that we were all capable of recognizing good art, that it would speak to human beings, if we weren’t so disconnected from the earth itself, and thereby emotionally constipated.
Considering that the majority of western society are urban, it is possible that we are all emotionally and artistically constipated. Backed up, major piles, needing surgical intervention. First way to fix a problem? Admit you have one. Second way to fix a problem? Recognize the symptoms. We find the human watchers are in every sector of our society – it is in the art gallerist who looks down their nose at walk-ins and the uninitiated; it’s the hipsters and artists who measure each word they use in a sentence, taking half an hour to make a point, because God forbid they say anything that isn’t perfectly constructed, which walks the line between originality and ‘being cool’; it is the same hipsters and music aficionados who listen obsessively to deep house, introspectively dancing (and when I say dancing I mean simply swaying a bit with their eyes closed and not looking at anybody else, not even their friends) for anything that ranges from twelve minutes to half an hour for the ‘drop’, applauding and praising that one to thirty second moment before waiting another twelve to thirty minutes of repetitive, over-produced beats until another euphoric, divine, out of this world! drop occurs again. It is the people who search for five days for a particular truffle oil, only use one drop and then wax lyrical about it, where they found it, who produced it, what they did with it, all the while being so very skinny that you’re quite sure they haven’t enjoyed food in a long time; it is the people who dismiss others because of their clothes, saying things like ‘that jacket was simply ugly’. It is found in the people who have fallen in love with the idea of the artist, the filmmaker, the DJ, the folksinger, the hippy, the politician, the advertising man, the stockbroker, the wolf of wall street, the drug-addled and prostitute-fucked billionaire.
Of course, there is art to be found at the heart of all of these things – the person who works hard at his product and makes billions because of it, the musician who feels a true inspiration from deep house, the art gallerist who is passionate about the paintings or whatever hanging (or playing) on the walls of their gallery, the truffle oil finder, who’s passion is truffle oils, who has a blog and a fan group and works in a different job elsewhere, to fund their love of it. There are people who are true about it all and they are sincere and this sincerity is infectious. They’re the ones at the centre of all the rest, like saturn sat amongst its many rings. Others fall in love with the infection, the idea of it and all the extra quirks that are a bi-product of artistic endeavour, and they tend to generate a level of artificiality.
(Ah, the crux of this whole article. Finally, you may be thinking. Well, think away. It doesn’t really bother me.)
What has this got to do with comedy? Comedy enables the artist (and the average human being) to engage and comprehend all of these different sectors, but also to maintain perspective. To be comic is to understand the entire range of human emotion, from sadness and despair to joy and satisfaction. It also allows the artist to create anything, do anything because they are able to understand that it does not define them (have you noticed that throw away jokes in this article? I’m a product of my own belief system – that being funny brings you a sort of freedom). Society and humanity often searches for an answer to who they are, why they’re here. Labelling yourself as artist, DJ, hipster, billionaire, stockbroker is an easy way of doing that but it is also perpetuating a lie – humanity and the individual is never just one of these things, we are all of them and often. One can appreciate anything and everything – we can enjoy deep house and Taylor Swift and we should, because it is all art, in some manner. To say no to one thing is to cut off another limb of human experience and comprehension – all of it is valid.
Comedy also enables the everyman to call ‘bullshit’ without being too offensive. Wrap it all up in a well-timed joke and you’ll be eliciting laughs, not tears. A good trade-off by anyone’s standards.
Comedy is the highest form of art (not the best type of art or only legitimate method of producing art) because it is not tied down by anything else, it rises above all bullshit and the comic can be all these things, play with all of these characters without being limited by them. It has the capacity to comprehend and cavort with societal structures, moods, attitudes and trends while remaining detached when people begin to believe the myth too much. Comedy allows us to hit on what’s truly great, truly genius, while giving mankind the power to remain undefined by the fluff that surrounds those great moments of genius, and to call out all those artists, musicians and fashionistas who ride on the tail-feathers of the true game-changers and sincere artists.
Comedy is everywhere. While movie-comedies are decreasing in number, the films which are making serious money, the super-hero movies and action films, are enhancing their morality-based story lines (good overcoming evil, the hero saving the world and sacrificing himself – the list goes on) with comic aspects. Marvel’s Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, The Edge of Tomorrow – all these films use funny dialogue, amusing characters and occasional slapstick humour. Even the recent success of Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies on the London theatre scene may be down to the use of humour in their theatrical adaptations (they were originally novels). While films solely concerned with ‘being funny’ often fall short of this aim (any of Adam Sandler’s recent movie attempts), comedy is often at its best when present with the tragic, present with the drama and present with the hero trying to overcome moral obstacles.
Hegel believed comedy to be the highest form of art because of its ability to understand the gravity of life and circumstance and yet lift itself and the audience above the tragic. The dramatic hero is a man defined by fate, the comic is defined by attitude. In this way, it forms some sort of unity between the acknowledgment of what is serious, what forms seriousness and whether or not to take it seriously. Hegel believed this bridge shifted comedy from the realm of the dramatic arts, to a form of philosophy.
Furthermore, if art often tries to understand the unknowable, perhaps this is laughable in itself. Hold on! I need to add to this point before you stand forming marauding hordes of angry artists! Georges Bataille suggested (I did not) that ‘that which is laughable may simply be the “unknowable”’. You know the expression ‘what comes first: the chicken or the egg?’ Well, perhaps we should come up with a new version – which came first: the art and artist or the comic and comedy? If art tries to know the unknowable, comedy was born from it. According to Bataille of course.
Comedy is as essential to life as principles are and it is because of this that I suggest it is the highest form of art, and possibly life.