#111: The Nature of Art

MuseLetter #111 / April 2001
by Richard Heinberg

These days much of my time is taken up with gardening (it’s spring!) and playing the violin. Recently my wife Janet and I saw the film Pollock, and I was inspired to begin working on an abstract expressionist painting for a wall in our living room. I’ve also been reading about the destruction of ancient Buddhist images in Afghanistan by the Taliban. All of these circumstances have gotten me to thinking more about the arts.

There is, of course, plenty to be said on this subject. Much is said daily in magazines and newspapers, on radio and television; and that, in most cases, consists of reviews of new films, CDs, gallery showings, and books.

However, as with most things, I’m inclined to take a longer view – an anthropological, historical perspective – on the subject. What follows is a series of observations (not necessarily a coherent essay) on the role of the arts within changing societies.

According to Duane Preble in his 1973 textbook, Man Creates Art Creates Man “Art is something done so well that it takes on more than ordinary significance.” If we accept this definition, then an artist would be a person who accomplishes a given activity with particular skill and style. I suppose that a plumber or an accountant could be considered an artist, if she or he did really spectacular work; however, some activities lend themselves more than others to personal creativity and excellence. Cooking and gardening do; working in a sweatshop and filing forms with government agencies don’t. Activities with more scope for personal autonomy also appear to offer greater opportunity for artistic expression. Of course, even many ordinary, routinized activities – handwriting, walking, sitting, conversing, making tea – can acquire the status of art if they are done with heightened awareness and great care. Nevertheless, the conclusion is inescapable: art depends upon choices, and therefore the opportunity for choice. People with fewer opportunities for autonomous choice available to them have less room in their lives for artistry.

One of the many tragedies of modern life is the degree to which economic necessity precludes the possibility of art. As we find ourselves working harder, longer, and faster in order to get by, our avenues of truly autonomous choice become increasingly constricted. We may have five hundred television channels to choose from; but, for the vast majority of people, the rejection of television itself is unthinkable. And the act of watching television – in which one passively surrenders one’s nervous system to be acted upon by corporate image-makers – is surely one of the least artful pastimes imaginable. We can choose among dozens of brands, colors, and styles of automobiles; but, for the vast majority of people, the rejection of the automobile itself is unthinkable: it is a foregone conclusion that many hours each week will be spent sitting behind the steering wheel, navigating traffic – in which the object is not so much creativity as mere survival (exception: Italy, where driving is truly an art). And so on: we in late industrial society have a numbing array of choices, nearly all of which have been pre-selected for us. The range of daily activities in which we can exercise truly autonomous choice shrinks noticeably from decade to decade, year to year.

It is clearly true that some societies are more artful than others. Traditional Japan, steeped in the quasi-anarchistic philosophy of Zen Buddhism, brought artistry to nearly every detail of every activity, no matter how mundane. The unassuming simplicity of Zen design – whether of gardens, pottery, textiles, or architecture – is as refreshing as pure, cold water. Europe during the Renaissance produced heaps of art, but much of it tended to be gaudy and overdone, reminiscent of elaborate but overly sweet desserts. At the nether end of the spectrum are societies that have been overrun by expanding empires, societies whose indigenous arts have been suppressed or abandoned, societies that pathetically try to absorb or mimic artistic styles that are not their own and that have little integrity to begin with. Into this category, sadly, fit most of the cultures of today’s globalized market-world. American advertising images are bad enough in the context of Manhattan or Los Angeles, but when they appear on tee-shirts and billboards in villages in Africa, India, or South America, displacing local cultural forms, they take on a grotesqueness that begs the coining of a new descriptive word – antiart.

Thus cultural integrity and autonomy – as well as personal integrity and autonomy – appear to be prerequisites to the making of good art.

Ah, but what is good art? Living now in the “postmodern” era – having accepted a definition of art as equivalent to rule-breaking, and having rejected conventional standards as to what constitutes art in the first place – , many people are reluctant to make any judgments at all about what constitutes “good” or “bad” art; they retreat to the position of merely offering opinions on which individual artistic creations they like or dislike. Everything is art! Comparisons are odious! Granted, critical judgments are often superficial or parochial. Yet all art builds on certain universal themes or elements; and, if we learn to recognize those universals, we can assess, in individual instances, how well an artist has done in combining and expressing them. Every artist works with the basic toolkit of human perceptual elements: color, line, rhythm, pitch, texture, tempo, proportion, fragrance, taste. In grappling with these to form a coherent statement, the artist expresses ideas and emotional states of varying subtlety or intensity. Qualities like symmetry or asymmetry, ingenuity, energy, surprise, or grace are discernible whether the cultural style is Polynesian, African, Native American, Chinese, or European.

In visual art, the golden proportion (1 : 1.618 . . .), with all its wondrous mathematical implications, is intuitively pleasing to the eye. Nature uses the golden mean ubitquitously in the growing of leaves and limbs, eyes and petals. In music, the scales and the laws of harmony derive from the natural overtone series of a plucked or bowed string, and the subjective sensations of consonance and dissonance spring from objectively demonstrable interference patterns in sound waves. Thus the essential elements of art emerge from nature.

But if the principles that make for good art are inherent in nature, and if humans (as animals) are also part of nature, then how could there be bad art? Even in nature the ideal form is not always realized. Sometimes, when conditions are far from optimal, what could have been a magnificent cedar tree can manage to become only a craggy shrub. In the human world, the struggle against adversity can sometimes produce truly great art (as in the case of van Gogh), but often adversity wins. In fact, the reality of bad art is simply undeniable. Take the art of violinmaking. Irrespective of their actual sound, bad violins can instantly be recognized by work that is unsure, careless, or routine. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to make a good violin, and favorable conditions – training with a master maker, personal access to examples of great classical instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri, and feedback from clients who are high-level musicians capable of judging violin tone – certainly help.

Perhaps it is unfair to call any art “bad” if it results from honest effort (what would be some alternative terms – “poor”? “undeveloped”? “untutored”?). But there is a superabundance of art that deliberately seeks to deceive and disempower. It’s called advertising art. And much of it, though highly developed and professional, is very bad indeed.

It is impossible to understand the role and function of art within a given society without inquiring into that society’s economy, ecology, and politics. Culture is integral, and grows from the roots up. The arts are the flowering tips on the ends of culture’s stems and branches; we prize the rose, but cannot improve it without feeding the soil in which it grows; we understand the organism in its totality or not at all.

A couple of years ago I had the great pleasure of seeing some Paleolithic art in a cave called Pech-Merle in southern France; I’ve also been privileged to view the Aboriginal designs around the base of the great rock outcropping in central Australia called Uluru by the natives, Ayer’s Rock by the invaders; and many Native American rock drawings in New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. Though the artists responsible for these works were widely separated in time and space, their productions had much in common. These drawings, paintings, or relief carvings were accomplished using only sticks, stones, and a few earthen pigments. The results, nevertheless, were impressive. Images of extinct European bison, deer, and fish strikingly captured the character and movement of these animals. Simple Anasazi rock etchings marked celestial phenomena (solstices, equinoxes, lunar cycles) with profound significance for both people and planet. Aboriginal painted representations of human and animal figures possessed an eerie resonance, embodying as they did the ancient secret-sacred myths and perennial ritual life of the Pitjantjarra people. All of these artworks had a timeless quality, having survived intact for hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of years.

Contrast these efforts with any modern counterpart: the most dramatic comparison would be with the Hollywood blockbuster motion picture, the signature art form of our time and the most elaborate ever devised. The latter is, of course, vastly more complicated in every respect, requiring an array of sophisticated technologies and armies of specialists, all working together to produce an infinitely reproducible visual and sonic experience that is sensorially overwhelming.

Art is emblematic of the society from which it emerges. Don’t expect a major motion picture from a hunter-gatherer band; the latter simply doesn’t possess the range of tools and skills necessary for the task. Hunter-gatherer societies are materially simple: the range of artifacts familiar to their members is small, encompassing in some cases only a few dozen tools and social roles. Industrial society, by way of comparison, is extraordinarily complex, with millions of different kinds of artifacts and job descriptions. This greater complexity theoretically offers a far wider scope for creativity: every industrial artifact – from the paper clip to the computer mouse to the laser scanner in the grocery store to the handle on a refrigerator – has to be designed. We in the modern industrial world are thus surrounded by art to a degree unparalleled in any earlier society. Urban dwellers must exert effort – sometimes considerable effort – to see a surface not designed by another human, to hear a sound not generated by humans or their machines.

The advantages, from an aesthetic point of view, are obvious. The population densities and opportunities for interaction among artists that are afforded by the modern metropolis permit an extraordinary level of development of technique. There are more piano virtuosi alive today, playing at a higher level of technical perfection, than at any other time in history. The same with nearly every other medium: there are more highly skilled sculptors, painters, calligraphers, ballroom dancers, or whatever, than ever before. And the range of media has itself grown: beyond industrial design and advertising art, we have the Hollywood blockbuster, as well as still newer art forms including web page design and virtual reality simulation.

But we pay a cumulative price for this artistic cornucopia. By isolating ourselves within a humanly-designed and thus human-centered universe, we cut ourselves off from the true source of art – which is nature. Technical perfection and media sophistication cannot replace naturalness of gesture. We stumble from the movie theater, sated and numbed. We get into the car, cue up some music on the CD player, and drive home. We turn on the television and glance at it occasionally as we devour a logo-emblazoned deli sandwich from the refrigerator. The semblance of life grows ever more convincing, as the reality of life disappears in a clearcut somewhere beyond view from the highway.


Is art uniquely human? Certainly not. Of nonhuman animals, birds are among the most creative. During the 1940s, English musicologist Len Howard devoted herself to studying the music of wild birds. According to Theodore Barber’s account of her work (published in his marvelous book, The Human Nature of Birds, 1993), she became personally acquainted with many and knew some for their entire lives. . . . Her intimate study of bird songs led to four surprising conclusions:

Birds, like humans, enjoy their songs. They take pleasure in singing, and they enjoy hearing even their territorial rivals sing.

Birds not only convey messages and express feelings and emotions in their songs, but at times they sing simply because they are happy.

Conspecific birds can be reliably identified by their unique variations of the species’ song. In fact, conspecific birds apparently differ in musical talent as much as humans. This unexpected variability is due to the individual bird’s interpretation of the theme, his technical ability in executing it, his “style” of delivery, and the quality or timbre of his voice. Some very poor singers are found in every songbird species. . . . There are also very superior musicians among songbirds. For instance, over a period of a few days, a talented blackbird creatively and spontaneously composed the opening phrase of the Rondo in Beethoven’s violin concerto. (He had not previously heard it.) During the remainder of the season he varied the interpretation of the phrase; “the pace was quickened toward the end . . . a rubato effect that added brilliance to the performance.” Birds produce beautiful songs, not by robotically carrying out a preset program but by individual talent, creativity, practice, and experience.

Birds are also capable of visual artistry. Consider the bowerbird, as observed by Heinz Sielman (and quoted by Barber):

Every time the bird returns from one of his collecting forays, he studies the over-all color effect. He seems to wonder how he could improve on it and at once sets out to do so. He picks up a flower in his beak, places it into the mosaic, and retreats to an optimum viewing distance. He behaves exactly like a painter critically reviewing his own canvas. He paints with flowers; that is the only way I can put it. A yellow orchid does not seem to him to be in the right place. He moves it slightly to the left and puts it in between some blue flowers. With his head on one side he then contemplates the general effect once more, and seems satisfied.

Though the making of art is not a uniquely human activity, there are nevertheless kinds of art that are specific to human beings. Human art often carries a wealth of symbolic content. Humans have a mania for symbols: words, letters, pictures, hieroglyphs, numbers, logos, codes. And from these symbols we build languages, religions, economic systems, political ideologies, science, and mathematics. This foaming froth of symbols occupies human consciousness, appearing so overwhelmingly real and important to us that we often forget that it is merely an epiphenomenon. Sociologist Tony Vigorito, in a soon-to-be-published novel, Just a Couple of Days, speculates what might happen if a hypothetical genetically engineered “Pied Piper” virus were to escape from a bioweapons lab. The virus doesn’t make people sick; it just permanently incapacitates the areas of people’s brains that enable them to create and decode symbols. No more numbers, money, or words. This cleverly written novel lurches toward a seemingly inevitable apocalyptic conclusion; however, when infection with the virus becomes universal something strange happens. . . .


John Zerzan, the brilliant anarchist philosopher from Eugene, Oregon, argues (in an essay, “The Case Against Art,” in his book, Elements of Refusal, 1988), that all art is inevitably symbol-ridden, and therefore oppressive or misleading at least to some degree. He writes:

The veritable explosion of art [in the Upper Paleolithic, about 30,000 years ago] bespeaks an anxiety not felt before. . . . Here is the appearance of the symbolic, as a moment of discontent. It was a social anxiety; people felt something slipping away. The rapid development of ritual or ceremony parallels the birth of art, and we are reminded of the earliest ritual re-enactments of the moment of “the beginning,” the primordial paradise of the timeless present. Pictorial representation roused the belief in controlling loss, the belief in coercion itself. . . .

Not surprisingly, the first origins of a departure from those egalitarian principles that characterized hunter-gatherer life show up now. The shamanistic origin of visual art and music has often been remarked, the point here being that the artist-shaman was the first specialist. It seems likely that the ideas of surplus and commodity appeared with the shaman, whose orchestration of symbolic activity portended further alienation and stratification.

It is fairly easy to see some equivalence between the origin of the human obsession with symbols and the mythic Fall of Man. Zerzan makes the point more convincingly in essays (collected in the same volume) on time, number, and language. However, the existence of art among non-human animals begs the question: Must all human art be symbol-bound and alienating? Perhaps we will know for sure only after the Pied Piper virus has gotten to us.


Artists are sometimes capable of extreme hubris. When discussing the social function of the arts, they often place it at the leading edge of social change, supposing that their ideas and images are the seeds from which culture grows. However, this may be an extreme exaggeration of art’s role and power. In his theory of culture, Anthropologist Marvin Harris locates the arts in the superstructure of society, together with religions and ideologies. In Harris’ formulation, the superstructure and structure (politics, economic system) of society primarily tend to respond to changes in infrastructure (the interface between society and nature, the means of production and reproduction). Harris might point out that the industrial revolution didn’t happen because of literary, musical, or artistic movements; it occurred (largely) because European society discovered rich new energy sources. Abstract art didn’t create the social, cultural, and psychological developments of the twentieth century; rather, it emerged in response to the development of the technology of photography, and to the social and personal regimentation and alienation brought about by industrialism. Electronic music – including amplified rock music – followed upon the electrification of society, they didn’t inspire it.

Material conditions change; then consciousness changes; and new art forms follow to express changing consciousness. Sometimes that expression is autonomous and spontaneous; often, however, the artist is employed by political, religious, or economic leaders to promulgate, justify, publicize, or celebrate infrastructural or structural developments within society. In the former instance, the artist frequently appears as a revolutionary or a social critic – Woody Guthrie, Goya, Rage Against the Machine. In the latter instance, the artist is little more than a commercial or political tool.

This is not to say that, in either case, the artist’s efforts are ineffectual. At the very least, they help shape the terms by which society adapts consciousness to the infrastructural regime. The artist does shape culture, but cannot do so in a vacuum. Where there are grounds for a revolutionary movement, the artist can help it coalesce and give it cohesion. Employed by society’s elites, the artist can forge images that galvanize enthusiastic cooperation among the populace – whether toward the project of producing, or consuming, or of waging war.


In this light, it is instructive to follow just a few of the threads of the development of the arts in the twentieth century. In his book PR!: The Social History of Spin (1998), Stuart Ewen describes the role of artists in the economic paroxysm of the Great Depression, and in a business-funded PR counteroffensive mounted just before and following World War II.

Believing that American capitalism had to be fundamentally reformed in order to bring an end to the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt brought together economists and image-makers first to create new social-democratic programs, and then to publicize these programs to the American people.

Throughout the 1920s, advertising artists had developed a vocabulary and a set of techniques for influencing the masses. The message the ads presented was that corporations were benevolent; that their products were hygienic, convenient, and indispensable; that people within American society were better off now under corporate management than they had ever been as independent producers; that poverty was nonexistent, while wealth and comfort were the norm. Now, in the context of the Depression, Roosevelt saw the need for a new set of messages. Many of the resulting efforts were channeled through the Resettlement Administration (RA), whose Information Division and Historical Section hired photographers to document the lives of real people in real communities. These photographs were subsequently published in magazines such as Life and shown widely in traveling exhibits. Ewen writes,

What is striking about these images of everyday life – particularly when viewed in relation to the commercial imagery that had dominated in the twenties – is the marginal, sometimes ironic status of the commercial culture within them. The jerry-built shops that are seen in many street scenes, for example, display the signage of big business – GULF Oil, Coca-Cola, NEHI sodas, Dr. Pepper, Budweiser, “Grand Prize” – but in these photographs the signs were divested of their merchandising luster. . . . The visual ironies, like the diverse portrayal of Americans themselves, provided a defining thread. . . . These pictures” visual style employed a language of contradiction. The photographs celebrated America while rejecting an American national culture based on the religion of “prosperity” and commercial images. In short, they encouraged people to rethink what business as usual really meant.

For the most part, corporate America hated Roosevelt and what he was doing, regarding him as a “class traitor.” Through the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), business plotted a PR counteroffensive. This took four parts:

According to Ewen, “to cure the middle class of its growing antagonism toward business, NAM’s first general objective was to publicize the idea that there is a harmony of interests linking corporate America with the majority of ordinary Americans.” This was accomplished by finding a myriad of ways to associate the notions of “free enterprise” and “democracy” in the public mind.

NAM’s second tack was to fuel popular resentment against taxes. However, rather than mentioning the progressive tax rates and how taxes hurt businessmen, the goal was to highlight the tax burden on the middle class so as to heighten discomfort with taxes in general.

Third, the NAM changed its PR strategy regarding unions. Abandoning its overt animosity toward all organized labor, it decided to focus its publicity campaigns instead on “unscrupulous unionism and radicalism,” which, according to the NAM, posed a threat to “The American Way” (which would become the title of the campaign).

The fourth and final prong of the PR offensive would consist of the articulation of a positive vision of the future. This vision would be based not on ideals of social equality arising from government economic planning, but on technological advances issuing from capitalist industry.

This public relations strategy would be pursued by dozens of corporations working individually, and well as together (via associations like the NAM). Thousands of advertisements would be placed in newspapers and magazines and on radio programs, promoting not a particular product, but rather some element of the NAM message. Artists, newspaper columnists, filmmakers, and radio script writers were hired to communicate that message as broadly and intensively as practicable. The 1939 New York World’s Fair offered a unique opportunity in that regard: occurring toward the end of the Depression, the fair offered citizens a glimpse into the World of Tomorrow – a world made comfortable and convenient by corporate technology, a world untroubled by any awareness of class divisions.

World War II intervened to momentarily disrupt the progress of the NAM campaign. But years later, with the war over and with television added to the PR arsenal of communication tools, the offensive geared up to even higher levels. Apart from temporary setbacks suffered during the 1960s and early ’70s due to the popular civil-rights, antiwar, and environmental movements, the NAM PR campaign succeeded grandly, realigning the loyalties of tens of millions of Americans with the interests of business.

It is a story we might not immediately associate with “art.” However, this historically critical shift in the American political climate occurred through the work of thousands of creative people, from painters like Norman Rockwell to screen actors like Ronald Reagan.

Why did elite art patrons and critics foster abstract schools of art during most of the twentieth century? Part of the answer can be gleaned from the film Cradle Will Rock, which chronicles (as a side plot) the hiring of Diego Rivera by Nelson Rockefeller to paint a prominent mural in Rockefeller Center. When the revolutionary Marxist themes of the mural become obvious, Rockefeller fires Rivera and orders the mural destroyed (yes, it really happened). Abstract art threatens no one, other than provincial rubes who expect pictures to look like something. Those people don’t count. In fact, it is advantageous that they be made to feel uncultured, incompetent, and powerless. How refined are the tastes of the rich!

And yet, beyond art’s politics, beyond its symbolic content, there is something ineffably healing. One day last week, suffering from a miserable headache, I put on a fine recording of Schubert’s “Trout” quintet and simply sat and listened. I felt better – not only physically (I could have taken an aspirin, after all), but spiritually as well.

Given that we are surrounded constantly by commercial images and messages, it is easy to understand the increasing popularity of music and art from other times and cultures – classical, baroque, and renaissance music, world music, Native American and Aboriginal art, early Zen art, African drumming and dance. These forms seem to carry far more of the essential healing current of art, far less of any manipulative message implanted by corporations.

Marshall McLuhan taught us that the medium of communication carries its own implicit message, which has nothing to do with the overt symbolic content being communicated. The occasional intrusion of awareness of form when content is customarily discussed can be a source of humor (Q: “Did you like the movie?” A: “Yes, I thought the illusion of motion created by the rapid projection of a series of photographs was very convincing”). But dysjunctions between form and content can also be deeply ironic – as in the cases of televised nature documentaries sponsored by oil companies, or “liberating” rock/rap/punk music performed with electrified instruments plugged into the fossil-fuel-fed power grid. Or a monthly primitivist MuseLetter composed on a computer and printed by a power-hungry photocopier on tree-based paper.

What will be the next artistic revolution? I’d base my guess on what I know about the inevitable direction of our society’s infrastructural change. The new art will use natural materials, and will do so sparingly. It will differ from preindustrial art in the deliberateness of its rejection of industrial technology, in its celebration of Earth-based wisdom, and in its implicit anticapitalist critique and satire. Little of it will be produced by full-time specialists; much of it will be integral to the design and decoration of common, useful, handmade objects and communal places. It will be a matter-of-fact part of the lives of the people, and will invest the human world with a simple beauty that will make it once again a seamless part of the natural world.

Such art already exists; much of it goes by the name “environmental art.” It isn’t yet commonplace simply because it is slightly ahead of its time. As the infrastructure of society changes, we may be seeing a lot more environmental art. I’m looking forward to it.

Comments are closed.