Those who resist the arts are most likely keen to see the arts as serving one purpose: to say what they want the arts to say and to be instrumental in terms of what they would like everyone else to be or behave. However, as we find in the most intense works of art that often emerge from religious or even political quarters, the hallmark of the arts remains the autonomy by which, beyond who or what commissions or originates a work of art, the art work itself takes a life of its own and asserts the primacy of human difference.
“Lonely” artists and the Humanist turn
There could be no doubt that the arts are prompted by an implicit democratic mandate, even when some think that there are artists who do not seem to care much for others, let alone for democracy.
The notion of the lonely artist is a modern Western invention. It emerged from the way the arts entered the commercial transformation of the economy at a time where, emerging from its guild system, artistic production became more and more focused on the Master leading his (and on the rare occasion, her) bottega, and ultimately the star artist either leading or inspiring a School, Studio or Movement which begins to set trends and fashions in the so-called Culture Industry
Mostly between the late Middle ages and the Renaissance, with the rise of several republics and city-states in Europe, the artist increasingly became a public figure who made a universalistic claim over and above political and religious fragmentation. As the Renaissance grew through a Neo-Platonist and Humanist revolution in all spheres of human sciences, the arts led the way to a recognition of the individual sense of engagement with the world. In less than two centuries, this would be sealed by the rise of Protestantism.
This new creative impulse moved beyond what was considered to be given over to a collective effort of an anonymous group of guild of artists whose work was far larger than them. Contrary to the assumptions of a humanity that gets its full meaning from God’s creation, this time art grew with an understanding that what humans created would become part of an effort of humanity to understand what God created. In this respect, the relationship with universalism was reversed.
This reflected a theology that emphasized a direct relationship between humans and God, and where the Catholic notion of collective mediation through the church was abandoned for what Martin Luther hailed as the predestined grace by which God elects human beings through the figure of Christ. This also reflected new forms of wealth creation, which as the sociologist Max Weber has shown, found growth in the Protestant ethic that would sustain and justify the rise of capitalism as the new economy.
The rise of individualism in the arts was not necessarily a rise in selfishness, as some have often argued. In the artistic realm, an individual sense of taste and ownership was always part of the connoisseurship by which the arts often became the property of the few. These “few” came from all political persuasions and covered all social classes.
The real danger of individualism became more pronounced as a political system in that the humanist positive approach to science and nature was always open to its other consequence: that of an appeal to what then appeared as the primacy of humans over nature and over each other.
Yet the opposite picture was equally true. In their humanist universalism, the arts and sciences sowed the seed which would grow into many ramifications that were to move beyond individualist assumptions of power.
The rise of the Republic as a form of power became, even in Machiavellian terms, a way of moving beyond the Princely assumptions of politics. Paradoxical as this may sound, the artist never lost his or her central position in artistic production, and yet the arts continued to move beyond the artist. Like the Republic, art moved beyond its Prince.
The rise of contingency
As this sense of empowerment moved on in history, the arts increasingly appealed to the masses in their revolutionary diversity. Artistic production began to make a case for a form of human expression that starts from the universalistic premises of the humanus, which this time was not embodied in the Church or the State, but was framed by the contingencies that marked the human condition by the diverse nature and needs of our daily living.
We know from history that art’s universalist immanence took opposite directions: from liberation to oppression and back. Nevertheless, the essential notion of art as that universe by which human beings could navigate between the necessity of laws and the contingency of everyday life and survival, remains a hallmark of what we still identify with the arts today.
It is in this context that, in its universalistic ability to recognize and assert the contingency of the human condition, that art remains intrinsically political, and therefore instrumental in both its ability to realize humanity’s potential but also in its ability to suppress it.
Art beyond humanity’s limitations
Yet over and above this paradoxical nature, art’s political intent is nothing but humanity’s ability and ambition to move beyond what it sees as its limitations. This is the crux of the matter for the arts, as it is this ability which we as humans invest in art, and that gives us the capacity to assert, sometimes loudly and not without controversy, that the arts are the most salient hallmark of human diversity.
This is what we find in Caravaggio’s work, where the spiritual sense of justice and human endeavor went beyond the hegemonic elements which often moved some churchmen to reject his paintings. This is also what we find in American modernism, where more often than not, the theme of individual liberty becomes an instrument to speak Truth to those forms of power which often suppress freedom in the name of “liberty”.
As in the art of Jackson Pollock, John Cage, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois or Kara Walker; as in the literature of Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, or Naguib Mahfouz; as in Samuel Beckett’s or Howard Pinter’s drama; as in the poetry of Edmond Jabes or Mahmoud Darwish … artistic production has become mainly concerned with a strong convergence between different women and men who care for their different identities and who come together to fight for unity in diversity.
Whether we are talking of an art class, a performance of a dance concert, a dramatic piece, or a musical performance, we all know that the arts thrive and are at their best when in their expression of diversity. This is because the arts embody what we regard as the most human of all.
Indeed. The arts come to us as events that make of the human species a horizon on which difference and divergence makes us all strong. Here, otherness and alterity are artistic facts that make us true, good and beautiful — even when this triad has long become redundant by the same freedom by which art asserts its divergent existence!