CHAPTER 7

ART, INSPIRATION, AND GENIUS

7.1. Statements

At the end of the preceding chapter, I said that art is the attempt to express something beautiful. That would actually do for a definition of it; but I would prefer to define art in this way:

DEFINITION: Art is an esthetically meaningful statement.

Because of the confusion of beauty and prettiness, most artists nowadays would be more comfortable with this definition than with the other one; but since what is beautiful is what has an esthetic property (and thus is one of the objects in a fact known esthetically), the two definitions are just different ways of expressing the same thing.

But before we get into specifically esthetic statements, let us consider what any statement is.

DEFINITION: A statement is the expression in perceptible form of an understood fact.

There are several things to note about this definition. First of all, not all statements are made in language. A shrug of the shoulders, for instance, expresses the fact, "I don't know, and/or don't care." This is as much a statement as the same thing said in words. Mathematical equations are statements; things said in sign language are statements. What is necessary for a statement to be a statement is not that it use words, but that it be in perceptible form. The act of understanding is itself not a statement, though it is what the statement expresses.

Note that you don't actually have to make the statement perceptible in order for it to be a statement; it just has to have that form. Thus, when we talk internally to ourselves (imagining ourselves conversing, for instance), we are making statements, because they have perceptible form and aren't just acts of understanding; but they aren't perceptible by anyone (not even ourselves, since in the strict sense we don't perceive what we imagine).

Secondly, a statement has to be the expression of a fact understood. This needs some qualification. Since we can make mistakes and lie, this means that a statement has to be the type of expression that could be that of an understood fact.

A mistaken statement is a perceptible expression of an act of understanding; but (because of the mistake), it doesn't express the fact the speaker thinks it does. A lie, on the other hand, doesn't express the speaker's understanding; but he wants you to think that it expresses a fact (as understood by him); and so it has to be able to express a fact.

But not every expression we utter is a statement. "Who's there?" is a question, not a statement. "Wow!" is an interjection, not a statement. "Go shut the door," is a command, not a statement. Many of these expressions imply statements (e.g. "I don't understand who's there," "This excites me," "I want you to shut the door") but they aren't statements, because they express different acts of the mind from those of understanding facts.

Contradictions aren't statements either, because, though they have the grammatical form of a statement, they can't express either a fact or an act of understanding. Thus, the expression "This statement is false" is not only not false, it isn't even a statement (if it were, it would be false if it were true, and true if it were false); it would express the act of understanding that the speaker isn't thinking of what he is thinking of--and no one can think that.

The point is that not all statements use words, and not all things that use words are statements.

The purpose in human consciousness of statements is to make it possible and relatively easy to have a given act of understanding. Within ourselves, statements make it easy to recall acts of understanding we have earlier had, and to arrive at new ones by combining statements and rearranging them (by logic, for instance).

But statements are also the only way we have of sharing our understanding with others. Since the actual act of consciousness is subjective and private, no one else can read our minds unless we produce something perceptible (such as a pattern of sounds or patterns on a page) which, by convention, can awaken in the hearer or reader an act of understanding like the one we had.

So statements are not necessarily just for communication; though if they are expressed externally, they would always have the ability to communicate.

Of course, what a statement communicates is called its meaning. But this needs a little elaboration.

DEFINITION: The meaning of a statement is the relationship that the statement expresses.

That is, statements are attempts to express what one thinks is a fact: a relationship among objects. But because the speaker can be mistaken about what the fact is, or because he can be mistaken about how to express what he understands, or because he can be lying, his statement might not actually express a fact.

The statement does, however, say that a certain relationship obtains among certain objects: it has the form of the expression of a fact. "This page is white." The relationship actually expressed by the statement is its meaning. But this may or may not be the meaning intended by the one who uttered it. If a person thought that "white" expressed what grass and emeralds have in common, he might say, "Grass is white" and mean what we would mean by "Grass is green"; but the statement wouldn't thereby mean this.

Note well that you can't make a statement mean something just by wanting it to mean that something. You have to be careful to express what you mean. So what a speaker means by a statement (i.e. what he intends to express) and what the statement means are not necessarily the same.

We also say, however, that words have meanings. Words are conventional symbols of either relationships, properties, or objects. Thus, "fathering" expresses a relationship, "green" a property, and "John" an object. Since any expression of a relationship will involve objects, the relation itself, and the property in the objects by which they are related, it seems that every relationship that is expressed in a statement will have to be somewhat complex. It can be expressed sometimes in a single word, especially in what they call "inflected" languages, where the part of the word itself expresses one or other of the dimensions of the relationship; as in Latin. "currit" means "he runs" (and not "I run").

But for the sake of economy, we want to use as few words as possible to express as many relationships as possible, and so we make them have multiple functions:

DEFINITION: A word is used in its reference-function if it "points out" an object or set of objects. Thus, "humans" in the statement, "Humans are living beings" is used simply to point to the objects you are talking about: anything that has the property of being human. It does so through the property, perhaps, but the function in this statement is not for you to notice the property, but the object-set.

DEFINITION: A word is used in its meaning-function if it expresses the property or relationship that is to be understood in the statement. "are living beings" in the statement above is the term (word-group) that expresses the meaning of the statement (it is what you are to understand about humans).

Some words, like "but" or "to" have neither reference nor meaning, but other functions in statements as they grow more complex. Words like "this" and proper names have reference but no meaning. But it is not, fortunately, necessary for us to go exhaustively into this for our purposes.

What is to be noted is that most (if not all) of the words that have meanings are not always used in their meaning-function, since they can also refer to the object that has the property or relationship in question.

But more importantly, note that each statement expresses only one meaning, no matter how complex it is. Even though it may have fifty words in it, each of which (if used in other statements) might express a meaning, there is only one relationship expressed--provided the statement is "well-formed."

This is another source of mistakes. a person might actually express two or more unconnected relationships in an apparently single statement. What he does then is confuse the person he is communicating with, because the hearer tries to connect them into a single relation and can't do it. He can't be understood by his hearer.

The first task the artist has, then, if he is going to make an esthetically meaningful statement, is to have something to say; he has to understand an esthetic fact worth expressing.

Does this necessarily have to be some fact that no one has ever understood before? Not necessarily, as we will see shortly. But it seems reasonable to say that people are more interested in hearing something that they don't already know; and people are also interested in saying something that hasn't already been said by a lot of other people. So in general, the artist will want to say something at least to some extent new.

But how do you discover a new esthetic fact? Ah, there is the problem.

DEFINITION: Artistic inspiration is the discovery of a new esthetic fact, in such a way that the form of its expression is suggested.

A lot of words have been wasted rhapsodizing about inspiration as something divine, mystical, and the prerogative only of The Chosen. But actually, it is simply understanding something that you didn't understand before. We have inspirations (or something essentially indistinguishable from it) in both the perceptive and esthetic orders whenever we learn anything we didn't know before, whether we are "taught" by the world around us or by some book or work of art.

Any inspiration seems like a "bolt out of the blue" because it tends to come after a more or less prolonged period of fooling around with the contents of your reactions and/or imaginings, fitting them together in various ways--when suddenly "the light goes on" and you see an interconnection you didn't notice before; perhaps the one you were looking for, perhaps a new one.

Artistic inspirations have the additional characteristic that, since the interconnection understood is based on emotional overtones, the understanding seems illogical (e.g., it doesn't seem logical that a field can be like a smiling face), and yet what is understood is recognized as true. It is also, of course, much more emotionally charged than perceptive inspirations, because the emotions are already actively involved in the act. I mentioned this when discussing catharsis. So the inspiration itself seems like some divinely infused knowledge--when in fact it is simply knowing what the emotionally-based relation is among the objects in question.

Of course, understanding a new esthetic concept is not much use if you have no way of expressing it. For a person who isn't a painter or poet, seeing a sunset might be inspiring; but it isn't exactly an artistic inspiration, because the person doesn't know of any way in which he could express just what he has understood. The best he can do is say, "Wow! Look at that!" to someone present; and later, "You should have seen that sunset! It was so beautiful!" All that that says is that he got an idea, but gives no hint of what the idea was.

But this still doesn't help the budding artist. How do you go about getting esthetic ideas that can be expressed? The first thing that this theory would seem to suggest is that the budding artist should pick a form of art that he is interested in, and learn how to express things in it. Most people need to specialize, in order to be prepared to express esthetic ideas, as well as to sensitize themselves to esthetic nuances, so that they can get new ideas.

An analogy with the perceptive order will be helpful. Those who want to know new things in the perceptive order usually specialize in some science or academic discipline. A person, for instance, will start studying physics; and in his classes he learns facts that have already been learned, and in his labs he discovers facts that have already been discovered--and he is apt to be annoyed. But what he is really learning is two things: what the body of facts that the science knows is (so that he won't waste his time later discovering something that everyone already knows), and the skills and methods which people in the past have used to discover facts. The result is that he learns how to approach physical data so that new relationships will suggest themselves, and he knows how to handle those new relationships when the inspiration comes.

It is a lot easier to learn something new if you are in a relatively specialized area; but there are branches of learning, like philosophy, which specialize in generalities and cross-disciplinary studies; and there are people who seem to be experts in many disciplines.

This also happens in the arts. Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, but he was obviously (as the Sistine chapel shows) one of the world's best painters; and he was a poet of distinction too. Leonardo, of course, is famous for being a scientist as well as an artist. There is no law that says a person has to confine himself to a speciality; it is just easier if you do, and most people can't handle more than one specialized area.

So the first thing to do is to learn the craft: what the rules are, why they are what they are, and how to do what needs to be done when you are expressing this type of esthetic idea. Painters, for instance, have to learn the rules of composition, perspective, how colors combine and what they do to us emotionally, what effect various lines and shapes have emotionally, what the various media are and what can and can't be done with them and why, and so on. And he has to paint, paint, paint.

It used to be that art students would spend most of their time copying old masters and doing all kinds of things that students have always thought irrelevant. Nowadays, that seems to have given way to "encouraging creativity."

I think that this, to some extent, is a mistake. It is due to the fact that teachers (from their own experience) have recognized that getting ideas is much more difficult than learning "technique" (what I was talking about), that it is much more interesting, and that even if you don't know the technique very well, if you have a great new idea, the technique doesn't matter much. (Beethoven, for instance, wasn't a very good orchestrator.)

All this is very true, and very irrelevant. It is sometimes possible that some genius can hit upon a new and valid idea without a lot of background of "technique" to build on; but in the first place, people like that are few and far between, like Mozart, and in the second place, like Mozart, even they can benefit from study.

In general, what "encouraging creativity" amounts to is the esthetic equivalent of letting the students babble on, hoping that eventually one of them will say something intelligent. It is like those wretched Freshman Seminars that cropped up in the 'sixties. The students got together and talked and talked about freedom, nuclear war (yes, even then); and neither learned anything from each other nor said anything worth hearing. How could they? Everything they said was innocent of any relation to evidence.

When Johnny is encouraged to paint, to "express himself," he puts paint to the canvas, not to express some esthetic idea he already has, but just "to do something artistic." His first reaction is to paint something that looks like something--and of course he fails, because he doesn't know the technique. To the extent that what he painted doesn't look like what he was trying to paint, he is praised by the teacher for being "creative"; and his failure is branded a success. By the same token, if he succeeds, he isn't being "creative" enough.

Of course, what the teacher is trying to show is that a likeness is not an esthetic statement; but what he is teaching is that randomness is art. Then as he paints randomly, he gets praised and blamed (it seems to him) randomly, because sometimes by accident he says something, and sometimes he doesn't.

If he survives, he catches on and learns the "technique" by trial and error, and then learns to express actual ideas. But this method doesn't really prepare him any better for getting ideas than the old "copy the past" method; and it is apt to handicap him, because good ideas need to be carefully stated, and he doesn't really have a good grip on the language.

Just as in the perceptive realm, too much can be made of grammar and "proper" speech, but this doesn't mean that learning grammar is a waste of time; so in the esthetic realm, "encouraging creativity" should not take precedence over learning the grammar of the art.

Well yes, perhaps; but how do you get the inspiration? The answer is that there are no rules for getting ideas; real creativity can't be taught.

You can put yourself in the way of ideas if you study an art form. As you learn the art form, you will see how objects are interrelated in the ways the art shows; you will see the esthetic properties of the objects in question. And this, of course, will make you emotionally more sensitive because of this type of esthetic property, and more disposed to find more intricate and subtle connections than a person who has not studied the form.

Beyond that, it is impossible to go. Finding a new idea means gathering together some reactions or images into a hitherto unnoticed pattern; and there can't be rules for doing this. It is the province of the genius.

DEFINITION: Genius is the ability to form unusual associations among reactions and/or images.

DEFINITION: Intelligence is the ability to hold many images or reactions in consciousness at once.

Genius and intelligence do not necessarily go together. When those with genius are not intelligent, we call them "odd," "eccentric," or "difficult"; though we are apt to think of very intelligent but traditional-thinking people as geniuses.

Since understanding is a spiritual act, there are actually no differences in our ability to understand as such. Whenever we are conscious of several objects, we can understand a relation among them.

Degrees of intelligence come from the number of objects we can be conscious of at once (or the number of parts or aspects of an object we can be conscious of at once). The more objects you can hold together in your consciousness, the more intricate the relation you can understand among them; if you can only pay attention to two objects, then you can only understand the simplest relations.

However, relations among objects not only depend on how many objects there are, but on what they are. It is easy to get a relationship among grass, leaves, and emeralds; but how about leaves and King George III? If there is some relation between them, it would only be known by a person who considered the two of them together. But why would anyone do this?

This is the kind of thing that the genius-type mind does. It calls to mind other objects than the normal person would call to mind when presented with a given object. And since it does so, it can then understand relationships that would never occur to the normal person.

The classic instance of this is Archimedes, who was asked by the King to find out if his crown was made of pure gold or an alloy. Archimedes knew that a given amount of the alloy would have a different weight than the same amount of pure gold; but in order to measure the amount (volume) of metal in the crown, it would have to be melted down, which would destroy it. How could you find the volume of the crown without harming it?

He was getting into the bathtub as he pondered the question, and idly noticed that the water level rose as he got in.

That was enough. He leaped out of the tub and ran naked into the streets shouting "Eureka!" ("I got it!"). What had he got? Having noticed the water rise, he realized that it rose to get out of the way of his body. So sink the crown into a full bucket of water and measure how much water spills out of it, and you have the volume of the metal in the crown. Weigh the crown and compare it with what that volume of gold should weigh. (As I recall the story, it was not pure gold and the goldsmith lost his head.)

After the fact, it is easy to see what the connection is; but before it, who would think to connect the volume of a crown with taking a bath? That is what genius is.

It is the geniuses who come up with the new departures in both science and art; and very often they themselves don't know how they do it. Their brains have an unusual logic, and if they allow their brains to function without direction, then the odd pathways are traveled, often with startling results.

Perhaps the "encouraging creativity" is an attempt not to block this sort of procedure. Since I happen to be a genius-type, I am not very much in favor of it. In the first place, since the genius makes odd connections, he will seem strange to normal people. In the second place, ideas he understands will not be understood by people he tries to tell about them. It is no fun to have people think you are "different." In the fourth place, if he really is a genius, then learning the traditional way of doing things isn't going to stifle his genius, but will only supplement it. From my own experience, I would venture an educated guess that if a person is the genius-type, he will revert to the natural logic of his brain as soon as he gets free from schooling. If he isn't, then sending him off on forays of randomness will only lead to maladaptive confusion.

Don't repine if you aren't a genius. You'll be much better able to get along with others, who will understand "where you are coming from," as they say. And the fact that you can't make science or art take a totally new direction is no indication that you won't have something new to say. Those who followed Newton learned a lot before Einstein revolutionized physics again. Similarly, those who came after Michelangelo painted beautiful paintings, even if they weren't as radically different from the past as his were. Schubert was no Beethoven; but Schubert had something of his own to say nonetheless.

There is a place for the ordinary thinker in the art world. We tend in esthetics to focus so much on the genius and the new departure that we forget that there are many things that are said esthetically that are not what could be called "great art," but have their use.

For instance, to take the visual arts, illustrators are needed who can illustrate things giving the proper esthetic meaning to what is being illustrated. Very often it would be bad to illustrate a book with pictures that were great art--because they would distract from the book by their own power, rather than reinforce it. N. C. Wyeth's illustrations of children's books tended to be better than the book itself; only really great literature could hold its own with him.

Advertisements need illustrations that help sell and don't call attention to themselves rather than the product. This takes a lot of intelligence, and not genius; genius is a handicap. And there are plays that need to be written according to formulas for television, which people watch, not to be esthetically instructed, but to relax. They don't want to have to concentrate on learning something new. Essentially, what the writers have to do here is say the same basic thing, esthetically, week after week; but in slightly new ways, so that there is a certain freshness about each episode, but nothing profoundly different. This requires a good deal of intelligence, if not much genius.

For the musician, there is background music and popular music, which again fails in its function if the composer wants to get across new ideas: though sometimes he can sneak some in, as in the music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

As long as the esthetic statements made in these non-creative art forms are not lies, then there is no reason to despise them, any more than there is reason to despise your local physics professor or the researcher at Procter and Gamble just because he hasn't revolutionized physics or chemistry. There is applied art just as much as there is applied science; and both take a good deal of know-how.

Let me end this chapter by putting in something that could as easily belong to the next chapter as this one, and speaking of the performing arts.

It is sometimes thought that there is no creativity in being a performing artist, because all you do is express what the author or composer had in mind; nothing is really "yours" as an artist. But the performing artist is really more of a translator than a kind of esthetic typewriter or Dictaphone. The composer, playwright, or choreographer has some esthetic concept that he wants to express; and he writes it down in a form that doesn't express it unless someone plays it, or acts or dances it. Shakespeare's plays don't have the esthetic effect he intended unless they are acted; reading them is only a last resort if you can't see them.

The job of the musician, actor, or dancer is, first of all, to understand from the page what the author is trying to say, and then to translate that into the proper sounds, intonations, gestures, motions, and so on, that will produce emotions that will get across the esthetic idea as the performer understands it.

When he does this, he will find that his own personality has entered into the expression; it is now his "interpretation" of the author's work, and it will be different--often very, very different from others' interpretations, and sometimes even different from what the author thought he was saying.

There can, of course, be interpretations that contradict what is there in the author's text, such as a reading that produces sadness where irony was called for, or a staging that makes the text sound anachronistic, and so on; Handel cannot really be played as if he were Wagner without having the interpretation say the opposite of what the notes themselves say. Such interpretations are misinterpretations, and are bad.

But there can be departures from the author's original intentions that get across a nuanced version of what the text says and make it express a new, but legitimate esthetic idea. The criterion is whether the interpretation fits the text, not whether the author intended the particular interpretation.

So performing art is real art; it involves esthetic understanding and expression of the esthetic idea understood. What makes it different from the kind of thing that the author does is that the author found the idea in the world around him, and the performer found the idea in the author's work.

Just as a translator can make a bad translation, if what is said in the new language means something other than what was said in the old language, so esthetic interpretations must "stick to the text" in this sense. But just as a translator can make a literal translation that is hard to follow or good, and just as no two translations will be exactly alike, so performing artists put their own stamp on what is performed; and just as a translator can recast whole paragraphs to get the meaning across better, so it is not necessary to adhere slavishly to Beethoven's metronome markings--which is not necessarily to say that it is bad to do so; it depends on how well you can get the idea across.