Comparing arts 3/3


Comparison creates art; comparison destroys art. What can be done with this double conclusion? Does it mean that art is futile?

Certainly all art is failed art, because all art presupposes that transformation can achieve transubstantiation. Cotton becomes canvas, oil and pigment become paint. Wood and resin become soundboard, horsehair that lately switched flies becomes bow. A dip in the palette, a flick of the wrist, makes a shape; a touch of rosin, a gesture of the arm, makes a note. The shapes make pictures; the notes make music.

Something really does happen; but just what happens is the same for all arts. They find their way to the same place, to pattern and proportion; what the artist does floats over the matter of the work just as ideas float over words. Those who affect to love art and despise words deceive themselves: if words are to be despised, so is art; if art is to be respected, so are words. For that sensuous element constitutes art not because it is ever special—they all enter through the senses as pale nerve information, and the brain dyes them in feeling—but because it is the antagonist of art. The sweetness of art is the bittersweetness of a fight entered in the certainty of defeat.

This failure is common and universal: it is the world's failure and mankind's, who are likewise the transformation of organic chemistry and chemo-electrical feedback and (unless God help) are likewise, for all that they are perfected, never independent of the matter they comprise. Matter has no decorum. What we value most is inflection and recombination of what we value least. What paints and sings, what loves and bears well, what stands for and roars out, is what chews and squats, what sweats and stinks—what rots.

To speak less abstractly: to define arts by comparison, as they must be defined, admits that arts can be defined; and whatever can be defined shares the futility that is the lexicographer's dilemma: words find the words that define them by arcs that are segments of circles. Definition chases itself forever. Among us now, to be an artist presupposes a contempt for words as compromised over against art as pure, veiling what art penetrates. Life itself, for us, only confuses and conceals where art sees and enters. But this is wrong. There are no exceptions for art. Nothing resolves the mystery. Art appears omnipotent because each form makes its own world; but set these worlds against each other and the familiar circle reappears, a great circle described by a skittering orbit of a smooth, sealed mystery.