Thursday 28 February 2008

Article by Ben Enwonwu | Dated 1949

Image: African Graffiti by Joe Pollitt

1949 - First Published
West African Pilot, May 1949


Author: Ben Enwonwu

I should ask the gods of my ancestors to tell me what art is and for what purpose it exists. It is easy to talk about painting and sculpture, or architecture, music and other forms of art but it is not so easy to discuss fully what constitute their natures and qualities. The question What is Art? has been widely discussed by artists, philosophers, and art critics but many aspects of it have merely been explained away. It is also a question for which no cut-and-dry definition has yet been offered, nor would any if offered, be adequate. Through aesthetic experiences and constant application of thought to art, writers on art have been able to offer different aspects of the answers which may serve as an adequate definition of art.

But very often the language of art employed is misunderstood, or else, taken for granted. One of the reasons for that misconception of written documents memoirs on art being of course that the eloquence of a work of art is beyond verbal interpretation. The most effective language of a work of art is its quality, which speaks for itself. Some people can react to the effect of the quality of a work of art, others cannot but this is a matter of sensitivity and education to an appreciation of the work of the human hand.

People with good taste are apt to wonder why it is that what they admire in works of art are not easy for others to grasp. A man of good taste may like certain qualities in a work of art for certain reasons, no matter whether those qualities recall to his memory what he had experienced in life or not. He likes those qualities simply because they appeal to him.

To be able to admire certain qualities in a work of art in this way, is to begin to discover for oneself, what art really is.

But, of course, some men of taste take art objects for granted as historical and fashionable documents. Usually, a class of aristocratic or bourgeoisie art connoisseurs spring up in a society, who are themselves genuine and ardent admirers of the beautiful. They would be classified as people who understand art. There is no question that they do, when it comes to the fact that they are the precursors of what society is to acclaim and emulate. But quite often, these art enthusiasts have no independent judgement and criticism of art based on justifiable aesthetic concepts. Art has suffered under the patronage of aristocracy which is the least criterion for assessing artistic merits and demerits. It is equally true that such patronage has promoted artistic creativity, but only materially. This is a matter of history.

Does the criterion for artistic judgement therefore depend on standards set by aristocracy and elegant taste, or does it depend on the nature and types of human races, who have so produced, as it were, not one art but many? Are beautiful paintings, beautiful buildings and beautiful sculptures necessarily art? Are works produced merely for purposes of the representation of things in nature and for decorum? Has man`s whole spirit and soul been wrapped up with the idea of building monumental copies of natural phenomena, and of creating great artistic impressibilities as a result of his reaction to impulse? If not, what is art, and for what purpose does it exist? Is what prompts artistic creativity art? Or, is what transforms a piece of wood or canvas, or even sounds into that, what has given life and concrete meaning, art?

I should now begin to seek answers to all these questions, and then try to explore the nature and types of human arts for upon the answers to such questions would depend what I would contend to be, a clear definition of art.

Art is not the human activity which aims at the creation of beautiful things. By this, I do not exclude elements of beauty, or beauty itself, from the qualities which a work of art must embody but such a hypothesis bridges the gap between art, as a reality, which is not visible nor tangible, and art as a human activity, the product of which we know as a work of art.

When critics of art discuss the subjects of art, they generally do not talk how clever the artist is, how he has copied nature or imitated her, nor even how nearer to nature the colours in a painting are. They, the critics of art, talk about artistic qualities which do not necessarily recall to mind what had been seen before that is, those eternal qualities which know neither time nor space.

To value a work of art, says Tolstoy, by the degree of realism or by the accuracy of the details is as strange as to judge of the nutritive quality of food by its external appearance. When we appraise a work of art according to its realism, we only show that we are talking, not of art, but of its counterfeit.

Most people admire what recalls things of sentimental value, or expect to find such things in a work of art and when such things do not exist in a work of art, they think that the work of art is either crude or not even art at all.

Others expect to find in a work of art and the function it performs, records of history and great deeds. It is in fact, one of the functions of art to record history: to tell the story of man`s intellectual and mental development in time and space, but such stories which a work of art does tell, are but its descriptive qualities, which must be subjected to greater qualities that are aesthetic in essence. Eugene Delacroix once said to Baudelaire:

The visible world is only a shop full of images and signs to which imagination gives relative value and place. It is a kind of pasture – land which imagination should order and transform. All the faculties of human soul should be subordinated to the imagination which uses them simultaneously.
A genius creates his own method he has no other a true artist is born to pick and choose, and group with intelligence, elements in nature, so that the result may be as beautiful as the musicians gathers his notes and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos, glorious harmony. To know what art is, one must know the human mind.

Most art lovers do not like to feel that beauty is not automatically implied when the word ART is mentioned. So that to them, it would seem quite aesthetically incoherent to call what seem an ugly object of art, beautiful. Unlike the Hellenic standards up to, and after the Renaissance, the classic theory of beauty conformed to realism and photographic verisimilitude. It is the meaning of art, and the purpose for which it exists, that justifies shapes, colours, or designs in a work of art.

Unless the meaning of a thing is understood, it is difficult to appreciate that thing in any reasonable sense. It is easy to misunderstand it, or take it for granted. One of the qualities which a work of art has, is its power to attract attention and to make an appeal. By this means, what the artist has communicated or had expressed, and the significance of his interpretations, become part and parcel of his medium or material, which is merely a means by which ART is born.

Art is therefore not a quality of things, but an activity of man. Beautiful lines in a drawing, or beautiful colours in painting or beautiful shapes in a piece of sculpture, are not at all ART. Art does not imply good colours, lines and shapes, not do these make up Art.

Thinkers, philosophers, and artists, have offered varied definitions of art, its manifestations and its functions. Apart from the fact that art gives pleasure, it also fulfils other functions which are as important as living itself.

Art elevates the human mind, sublimates his base emotions, and cultivates his sense to be more sensitive to the finer things of life. Art gives peace and vitality to the human mind and soul and as children are to women of whom they are born, so is art to its creator, the artistic genius. To cultivate ones mind so that art may speak, is to raise oneself above the level of the animal kingdom it is to give freedom to man`s spirit which is the real joy of life.

But I am limiting art to painting and sculpture in the sense as Vernon would contend, that art is essentially the expression of emotion. Great music cannot exist if it does not express emotion. And in painting, it does not matter if colours are not rich and harmonious. Degas, the impressionist and Cezanne, both painted in entirely different styles. Degas` colours were rich and characteristic of the impressionist school whereas, Cezanne sometimes, and quite often used dirty muddy colours but the unity, and vitality which his work conveys, are what critics call art in its entirety. Thus a work of art is complete, and nothing is left out, if even the absence of luscious colours predominate.

Tolstoy`s definition of art emphasises the transmission of the human emotion as the essence of art. Here, there is justification for the interpretations and the ideas which artists like Mark Ernst, Paul Klee, Duchamp, and others of the DADAIST group show in their works. Although the platonic theories of art, as the Imitative and the Representational, or the Aristotelian speculations on the mimetic impulse have prevailed, other theories like Schiller or Karl Groos whose views are equally acceptable, have added to man`s aesthetic discoveries. While Plato and Aristotle upheld the view that art must represent what the eyes have seen, and this idea prevailed throughout the immense period of art history, and was used to a very great extent by the Greeks and the Europeans, Schiller`s play theory of art has explored other aspects of art, which had never occurred to philosophers of his time and before.

The imagination of man, says Schiller, like his corporeal organs has also its free emotion and its material play, in which it merely enjoys its native power and liberty without reference to shape or colour. This play of the imagination consists in a free, unconstrained flow of images, which, because of the absence of form, is not yet aesthetic. But from this free play of ideas, the imagination makes, at length, a leap to aesthetic play. An entirely new power comes here into requisition for the directing spirit at first interfering in the operations of blind instinct, subjects the arbitrary process of the imagination to its immutable eternal quality. Art, in other words, is born when taste, asserting itself, imposes upon the products of the free play of man`s imagination.

Schiller`s analogy of the manifestations of art in the human imagination pre- supposes an answer to the question What is Art? From this point, the essential features of art begin to show themselves in positive terms. At this, I should contend that art, in the broadcast sense of the terms, is the human activity which is consciously so controlled as to produce a result satisfying some specified condition. I use the term specified in the sense that the artist/s free play of imagination helps, or does not hinder the ultimate creation of a desired effect which is the aim of Art be that effect one of fear, or joy, of the mysterious, or even of death and horrors – so long as the artist had been impulsed to infuse an effect into his image-making propensity.

In this sense, also, it would be reasonable to state that the germ of artistic creativity is that which differentiates man`s artistic expressions from the dim adumbrations of animal art. It follows, as the trend of art history has shown, that in its entirety, Art has been produced by man from the pre-historic times to the present and that there can be no logical argument denying the fact that what man had produced when he lived under primitive conditions, inspired by fear or imbued with taboo and superstition, is still great, if it was acknowledged so to be when compared with Art which he now produces as a civilized or cultivated man.

The capacity for artistic creation of the early man whose environment differs from ours is no less inducive to the production of great art as that of the man of the middle ages, or man of the Renaissance, and even modern man. It is only the treatment of the material which the artist employs as an agent, that is different itself, a product of science or industry or of nature, but not of Art – is a matter of studies and experience. The telic activities which I have stated can be classified in such positive terms so as to state quite categorically the extent to which the effect a world of Art has is a direct result of the manifestation of Art in the human imagination and vice versa.

I should divide Art into two species – the Ectotelic and the Endotelic. Ectotelic art may be defined as utilitarian or skilled work and Endotelic Art which is skilled self-objectifictation is the one with which I am essentially concerned. What the positive end of endotelic Art seeks is objectification of the artist`s beliefs, his feelings, meanings or significances, and volitions. The Art which is endotelic consists in conscious or subconscious, critically controlled, objectification of self or equivalently, in consciously objective self-expression.

It does not imply that the feeling, meaning, or significance and volition, which may be expressed in a material that the artist uses, or call it his medium which renders observation and admiration by the artist and others possible, is meant when objectification is addressed to artistic creativity. Objectification is usually mentioned in personal stuff but it plays its role in Art in distinct image-stuff that is to say, the interplay of both material and thought, is the result of a conscious creative activity of the artist. In this sense, self-objectification remains private to the artist. It is easy to see that the image stuff has a limit, where it meets with the realm of perpetual-stuff. The latter is what objectification denotes. However, the image-stuff as a medium of artistic creativity or expression, remains empirical.

Theoretically, image-stuff is possible stuff for self-objectification in so far as it does not encroach upon perceptual objectivity. Let me be more explicit – the expression in a work of Art which is a quality, is creative of something i.e. capable of being contemplated by the artist and others as well. But this is not the meaning of self-objectification.

The expression, as objective is such that in contemplation of some quality in a world of Art, it yields back to the artist`s feeling, meaning, or significance and volition, of which it was the attempted expression. Thus, an artist paints a picture or carves a figure and in desolation or dissatisfaction, destroys the work he has done because he knows that he has failed to express what he wanted. He would say, on contemplating his work, Yes, that is what I meant, or sometimes, No, that is not what I meant, if on the contrary, according as the extent to which self- objectification has manifested itself in terms of expression.

The artist may get rid of the impulse to express something, but that something may not rid him of it by objectifying it. Unsuccessful attempts at objective self-expression can only be noted, by contemplating the products – the works of Art. By obtaining back to the observer of the work, or by the artist, of what has been attempted to express, is the only proof as to the meaning of self- objectification. Objectification is a means and not an end but it is also the meaning of a work of Art, otherwise creative Art would be essentially not endotelic but ectotelic.

Artistic creativity is the act of self-expression. The act of self-expression is blind to accuracy or definite form unless it has been tutored – that is to say, the expression which the work thus produced possesses, is bound to be native, whenever expression is something original or new unless the technique is good enough. This does not deny the fact of its power or its vitality. The point I am trying to make is that when a child draws something, self-objectification remains a matter of guesswork, and in most cases, never occurs. Until he has learnt the Art and the craft, he cannot develop a sense of critical analysis. So it is with a clever draughtsman on the other hand, whose technique is superior to his capacity for self-expression, and self-objectification. Such blind acts never pass objectivity in the sense of that term, for the work produced would have no purpose except that which is purely biological or utilitarian.

Art is not merely self-expression but objective self-expression in the act of which it must be a conscious effort, only permissible of un-self consciousness in cases of primeval Art when self-objectification has been canalised into some definite purpose, categorized in various, though interrelated mechanisms as part and parcel of other dynamic forces that exist in the human society. I speak of the so-called primitive Art of which some critics of Art have described as unconscious self- objectification. Primitive Art is self-conscious, because the artist, either before or during the act of its creation, was conscious of certain elements which were to play a role in the artist`s creations he was aware of being aware, that certain elements were playing a part the question of the time when such elements became a part of the work produced is irrelevant.

Every artist, no matter what race, country, or epoch has been endowed with gifts such as capacity for artistic contemplation in word, that thing which he creates yields back to his feeling, meaning or significance and volition of which the work was the attempted expression.

Art is not only capable of passing the test of conscious objectivity but must have passed it before successful work is done. This means that a work of art is finished before it begun. The artist must have conceived an image of a thing before actually making it a concrete thing – a work of art. Consciousness of the act is gained by contemplation of the product, i.e. judgment as to whether or not the work truly mirrors back what Wassily Kandisky calls the inner klang.

The conscious objectification of the artist`s feeling belongs to the realm of aesthetics. Here the reason for calling Art Fine Art which is an ambiguous term crops up. The implication which the term Fine Art carries has implied, on many occasions, that Art so referred to, is an activity essentially concerned with the production of something beautiful. This, of course, is false and a wrong view of the nature of Art, as has already been pointed out in the earlier part of this article. Any activity of which the deliberate and ultimate aim is to produce something beautiful is Ectotelic Art i.e. skilled work, crafts. A craft work may be beautiful or lovely but that is its ultimate aim it does not reveal the maker`s imagination to question. As long as the eye beholds is as something attractive and `fine` or beautiful, it has performed its function.

The definition of Endotelic Art or Aesthetic Art is wholly independent of the notion of the beautiful. This does not mean that its product must or must not lack beautiful lines, and beautiful colours, and beautiful forms. It only means that Art the products of which are things pre-conceived, is true to the precepts of the images thus created in concrete form.

The word aesthetic is used at random and is applied even to the emotion which an American saloon can evoke on the mind – the steam lines! Sometimes the workd is used in its etymological sense – meaning perceptible. When the etymological sense of the word is conjoined with ethnography, the word is used to standardize works produced by man living under primitive conditions or else the work of the pre-historic man.

Kant`s first part of his Critique of Pure Reason dealt with aesthetics as if it has only to do with perception. Thus the word as I have stated above has been used to make all sorts of distinct enquiries such as the philosophy of beauty and empirical investigations of the characters and qualities which objects of art should possess, and then judged by standards established by society, based on beautiful things or persons, correct angles or rectangles, and anatomical proportions and so on.

Some Art critics have not resisted the temptation to judge some works of Art on such basis. But great critics of Art like John Ruskin, Herbert Read, Morris Collis and Eric Newton, would judge Art from a wider angle according as Art has satisfied all aesthetic canons. Any object may be called beautiful when, or in so far as, the feelings which one obtained in the aesthetic contemplation of it are pleasurable feelings. A beautiful object therefore may be, but need not be, a work of Art and a work of art may be, but need not be, beautiful. Beauty, being purely a matter of the sort of feeling that an object gives us in contemplation, remains wholly independent of the manner whether artificial or natural in which the object itself came into existence. On the other hand, a work of Aesthetic Art, being simply the consciously achieved objectification of a feeling, will not be beautiful unless the feeling objectified in it and reflected by it in contemplation, is a pleasurable feeling.

A mask can be a work of art if it is a successful attempt to imprison an idea or express an idea in terms of wood, and if it reflects such ideals or ideas by the effect of its shape, be they repellent or pleasurable to the onlooker. If the mask represents a goddess it could be a model of beauty in so far as the same ideal and the ideas that made the perpetual stuff possible of achievement, is triumphant. A realistic painting could be beautiful, but not a work of Art. The masks created by our ancestors are not only beautiful, but are highly sophisticated masterpieces.

The essay continues by discussing the nature of Negro African Art.

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