Useless Art and Beautiful Minds

Three Continents by El Anatsui (made with bottle caps)
           When you experience a work of art you can’t help imagining the mind behind it. Many people go so far as to imagine the events of the natural world as attempts by incorporeal minds to communicate their intentions. Creating art demands effort and clear intentionality, and so we automatically try to understand the creator’s message. Ghanaian artist El Anatsui says the difference between the tools and consumer artifacts that go into his creations and the creations themselves is that you are meant to use bottle caps and can lids, but you are meant to contemplate works of art. 
Peak Project El Anatsui (made with tin can lids)

Ai Weiwei’s marble sculpture of a surveillance camera, for instance, takes its form from an object that has a clear function and transforms it into an object that stands inert, useless but for the irresistible compulsion it evokes to ponder what it means to live under the watchful gaze of an oppressive state. Mastering the challenge posed by his tormenters, taking their tools and turning them into objects of beauty and contemplation, is an obvious intention and thus an obvious message. We look at the sculpture and we feel we understand what Ai Weiwei meant in creating it. 

Surveillance Camera Ai Weiwei
Not all art is conducive to such ease of recognition, and sometimes unsettledness of meaning is its own meaning. We are given to classifying objects or images, primarily by their use. Asking the question, what is this, is usually the same as asking, what is it for? If we see an image surrounded by a frame hanging on a wall, even the least artistically inclined of us will assume the picture in some way pleases the man or woman who put it there. It could be a picture of a loved one. It could be an image whose symmetry and colors and complexity strike most people as beautiful. It could signify some aspect of group identity. 

Not all art pleases, and sometimes the artist’s intention is to disturb. John Keats believed what he called negative capability, a state in which someone “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” to be central to the creation and appreciation of art. If everything we encounter fits neatly into our long-established categories, we will never experience such uncertainty. The temptation is always to avoid challenges to what we know because being so challenged can be profoundly discomfiting. But if our minds are never challenged they atrophy.
Coffin Ai Weiwei

        While artists often challenge us to contemplate topics like the slave trade for the manufacture of beer, the relation between industrial manufacturing and the natural world, or surveillance and freedom of expression, the mystery that lies at the foundation of art is the mind of the artist. Once we realize we’re to have an experience of art, we stop wondering, what is this for, and begin pondering what it means.

        Art isn’t however simply an expression of the artist’s thoughts or emotions, and neither should it be considered merely an attempt at rendering some aspect of the real world through one of the representative media. How Anatsui conveys his message about the slave trade is just as important as any attempt to decipher what that message might be. The paradox of art is that the artist conveys more of him or herself by focusing on the subject of the work. The artists who cast the most powerful spells are the ones who can get the most caught up in things other than themselves. Falling in love exposes as much of the lover as it does of the one who’s loved.  
Akua's Surviving Children El Anatsui
Music and narrative arts rely on the dimension of time, so they illustrate the point more effectively. The pace of the rhythms and the pitch of voices and instruments convey emotion with immediacy and force. Musicians must to some degree experience the emotions they hope to spread through their performances (though they may begin in tranquility and only succumb afterward, affected by their own performance). They are like actors. But audiences do not assume that the man who plays low-pitched, violent music is angry when the song is over. Nor do they assume the singer who croons a plangent love song is at that moment in her life in the throes of an infatuation. The musicians throw themselves into their performances, and perhaps into the writing and composing of the songs, and, to the extent that we forget we’re listening to a performer as we feel or relive the anger or the pangs of love their music immerses us in, they achieve a transcendence we recognize as an experience of true art. We in the audience attribute that transcendence to the musicians, and infer that even though they may not currently be in the state their song inspired they must know a great deal about it.

Likewise a fiction writer accomplishes the most by betraying little or no interest in him or herself. Line by line, scene by scene, if the reader is thinking of the author and not the characters the work is a failure. When the story ceases to be a story and the fates of characters become matters of real concern for the reader, the author has achieved that same artistic transcendence as the musician whose songs take hold of our hearts and make us want to rage, to cry, to dance. But, finishing the chapter, leaving the company of the characters, reemerging from the story, we can marvel at the seeming magic that so consumed us. Contemplating the ultimate outcomes as the unfolding of the plot comes to an end, we’re free to treat the work holistically and see in it the vision of the writer.

The presence of the artist’s mind need not distract from the subject we are being asked to contemplate. But all art can be thought of as an exercise in empathy. More than that, though, the making strange of familiar objects and experiences, the communion of minds assumed to be separated by some hitherto unbridgeable divide, these experiences inspire an approach to living and socializing that is an art in its own right. Sometimes to see something clearly we have to be able to imagine it otherwise. To really hear someone else we have to appreciate ourselves. To break free of our own habits, it helps to know how others think and live.
Ai Weiwei