2013-03-26

The Individual, Part IV

Previous installments of my series on individuality can be found here, here, and here.

Part Four, The Artistic Method
It seems uncontroversial to suggest that human beings possess both collectivist and individualist tendencies, and that both of these sets of tendencies influence our lives in important ways. That lone claim makes up the bulk of my thesis statement in this series on individuality.

The other large part of my claim is that our collectivist tendencies speak specifically to our moral sentiments, while our individualist tendencies speak to our existential sentiments. For a discussion on that particular claim, I encourage you to review Part One in the series.

If I am correct in my claim, then this leads us to some specific conclusions when it comes to artistic performance. (Note that here I will be using the phrase "artistic performance" to indicate the physical act of creating art incarnate. The act of painting or sculpting corresponds to the act of performing a dance, or a piece of music, and so forth.) Today, I'd like to explore those conclusions.

The Collectivist-Individualist Dynamic In Art
People are drawn to artistic performance for a variety of reasons. On some level, everyone who engages in artistic performance simply finds the art interesting. But if you ask artists why they do what they do, you will often hear references to "self-expression" or personal "creative outlets." That certainly sounds like existential motivation to me, and in that sense, art is inherently individualistic. It's all about exploring an artist's thoughts, emotions, and psychology by use of the chosen medium as interpreted by the artist.

What I mean is, the cited motivation for creating art is existential self-expression, and that artistic performance is always John's painting according to how John thinks paintings ought to be created. Or Ralph's song according to how Ralph thinks songs ought to be written. 

Wouldn't it be odd if Fred chose to express himself through John's artistic method? What might that look like? 

If John happened to invent Impressionism, for example, then John would simply be painting according to what he wanted to see. For John, it isn't really "Impressionism," it's just a painting the way he thinks it ought to look. Impressionism was a radical departure from Realism, but the first Impressionist painter wasn't imaging that his/her paintings were a new artistic movement. Rather, the idea was just to put some visual ideas down on the canvas.

Once Impressionism was created, though, it gained its own internal set of rules. Depart from those rules, and you are no longer engaging in "Impressionism." It doesn't mean you aren't creating art, it just means you're not creating art according to the established rules of a particular artistic movement.

Back to Fred. Fred lives in the year 2013, and Impressionism as a contemporary movement has basically come and gone. When Fred chooses to pain in the Impressionist style, he is - in a way - using John's artistic method to express his [Fred's] existentialist concepts. 

Fred didn't invent Impressionism. He's not really expressing his ideas in an unbridled, self-actualizing way. He's patterning his thoughts after a movement with which he identifies. But this is not his identity as an individual, it is his group identity. Really, Fred feels connected to the way in which Impressionists expressed themselves, and he is exploring the parts of himself that feel a connection to Impressionism as an artistic community

Thus, art can indeed reflect a genuine pursuit of self-actualization, or it can also reflect collective affinity or group identity. Art can be either individualist or collectivist (and perhaps a blend of the two).

Artistic Collectivism Is Difficult To Escape
As much as many artists combine collectivist and individualist sentiments when they engage in artistic creativity, it is important to distinguish what is what. For that, I am going to have to resort to a priori reasoning, since we would never be able to explore these concepts in the real-world without the heavy-duty psychoanalysis of a wide sample of people we all unanimously agreed were artists representative of the general category of people called "artists."

In other words, a priori reasoning is the only way to make any headway here.

The artist must adhere to a set of rules in order to create art. In the case of painting, for example, a fundamental set of rules are: there must be a visible difference between the substance being used as paint and the material used to display the paint. In the simplest terms, this must mean that there at least canvas and paint - and that includes all forms of painting for which "canvas" is a loose term (like wall paintings, paintings on glass or rocks, etc.) and/or "paint" is a loose term (as when an artist paints with substances other than paint, such as pudding, mud, chalk, spaghetti sauce, or whatever). Another rule might be that there is a point at which the painting ends and the rest of the world begins - be it a frame, a glass case, a line of police tape, or whatever. Rules can also be more elaborate, as in the case of the rules that define particular artistic movements: Cubism, Renaissance, whatever...

Insofar as the painter adheres to the established rules, it would be impossible to suggest that the artist is engaging in individual expression. The mere act of putting paint to canvas is an agreed-upon rule; we know it is art because we have epistemologically defined the act of putting paint to canvas as painting

At the crudest and most rudimentary levels, then, virtually all art of an existing category is collectivist. It is the use of someone else's idea to explore one's own thoughts. Observe, however, that new art forms are a revolutionary form of individuality. The first person who used computers to draw a picture, for example, employed a previously unknown medium toward his or her art. All subsequent computer-based artists, though, were not engaging in individuality when they decided to use a computer for artistic performance. (Whether the output of the act was individualistic is the real question.)

The choice of topics for a song might be an act of individuality, for example... unless the artist believes that he must write a love song, in which case he is merely adhering to what he sees as an artistic rule or social expectation for his art. The powerful pressures that exist for the artist, the urge to conform to existing expectations for what are "should be" are incarnations of collectivism in art.

It may seem counter-intuitive that there is such a high degree of collectivism involved in an act that we so often associate with liberating individuality. But the fact remains that audiences, societies, and the artists themselves all apply a set of expectations for how art ought to be rendered. As the artist seeks to meet these expectations and adhere to these rules, he is engaged in nothing more than social conformity. To be sure, it is a level of conformity that requires a great deal of skill and talent, but it is conformity nevertheless.

Individuality begins where the rules and expectations end.

Self-Expression And The Artistic Value Of Individuality
Until now, most of the benefits of individuality I have described have involved resolving internal conflicts. It is very true that individuality serves this purpose. But if this were the only reason to pursue it, then individuality would be nothing more than a last resort to unravel life's most complex dilemmas.

Individuality offers us so much more than that, and here is one very profound example of what the pursuit of individuality offers us: artistic revolution.

Just as the first caveman who deliberately cooked-up a colored substance so that he could paint hieroglyphs on the walls of his cave revolutionized the art of painting forever, so, too was the first person who employed a computer to create art a revolutionary. Innovations in the media employed in artistic performance are perhaps the most revolutionary kind of individuality in art. The act of taking an item that has never before been thought of as a way to speak symbolically, and use it to communicate an idea or emotion to other human beings is such a profound act of individuality that words nearly fail me here.

That first idea, thought of by a particularly unique individual, serves to change the way the rest of us look at whatever it is we might be talking about. Thus, computers go from being mechanized calculators of very large numbers to being generators of wholly new art forms. Such a thing is impossible until an individual considers the possibility, and thinks to herself: "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to take my computer, and use my existing knowledge to change pixels on the monitor, not for the purpose of displaying words and numbers, but to create something that looks like a tree!" Then, she codes just such a program, and the tree looks like what she thinks a tree should look like.

Conclusion
We had previously discussed the existential soothing that individuality offers people when they are faced with internal conflicts. We now see another, far more satisfying advantage offered by the pursuit of individuality: artistic revolution.

Certainly, there is a connection between artistic creativity and scientific creativity. It would not be such a stretch to suggest that the same existential, individualistic force that drives us toward new ways of conceiving of art are capable of driving us toward technological innovation. Individuality - that great opposite of following the existing set of collective behavioral patterns - is the road toward not only artist progress, but human progress.

It stands to reason that a society in which individualism flourishes is also one in which progress in general flourishes.