Art and the human condition

Kleines Cafe © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been spending more time at the Atelier of late. I’m taking an extra drawing class with Ryan, and I managed to squeeze in a tutored life drawing class with Scott Breton. The guys also throw a respectable barbeque of a Saturday evening, and invited me to an artist floor talk and exhibition in Noosa the following Friday, and all in all I’ve been avoiding all other social engagements in order to be a giant art nerd, having impassioned discussions about George Lambert and leafing through sizeable John Singer Sargent book collections.

Conversation delved particularly deep at said barbeque. I learned that Scott was in a former life a scientist, and (re)turned to art after realising that one does not become a scientist and cure AIDS, but one becomes a small cog working in a highly specialised area. Art is the inverse of this: perhaps the only career that allows one to indulge oneself, to preside over one’s own work. Which is not to say that Scott abandoned his true calling—his artistic skill is finely tuned and nothing short of incredible.

The view from the top of my street–the jacarandas are blooming

Scott’s adamant claim is that art and science are inherently linked, demanding similar skills and thought process and stimulated by the same experiences. This seems obvious to me. While I didn’t pursue science, I did pursue philosophy, the ‘king of sciences,’ and in large part because I felt it united the two currents running through me. I will likely never be a physicist, but my analytical mind thrived on physics in school, and it was the education system which forced me to narrow my pursuits. In senior high school I could only manage to narrow down my interests to these classes: maths, physics, English, music and art. I only have to look at J, working in quantum physics, who spends most of his time doing some very creative problem-solving acrobatics, staring about himself intensely as he draws new connections and generates idea after idea. These fields are not disconnected.

Having felt like I’d justified the role of the artist in my own mind, it distressed me to learn that Scott battles with the notion that art might not be a valid pursuit. We talked about footballers, and how, though we can’t empathise with their goals or desires, we can accept their place in society (though perhaps not their financial place in it as somehow far above that of mere mortals). But here is an accomplished artist of great skill doubting his contribution to the world. It’s not because the world doesn’t financially acknowledge his work (though that might be a nice place to start), or even because his work hasn’t resonated strongly with people—rather, it has. It seems that the crux of the matter is that art has no function. A carpenter makes an artefact, but it is a useful one. A painter makes an artefact that does nothing more than bring beauty into the world.

Hannah Arendt writes extensively about different active pursuits of humanity in her book The Human Condition. She calls them labour, work and action. By her scale, art is a measurably higher pursuit than mere practical labours, for just this reason that it is not tied to such functions. The catch, of course, is that the type of work she categorises as labour is in fact more highly prized in the modern world. To describe our society as consumerist says nothing other than that ‘we live in a society of labourers’ (p. 82)*. Labour stems from our physical needs, encompassing all activities we undertake in order to support ourselves as any other earthly creature must:  obtaining food and shelter and so on. Labour’s clear goal is to sustain life, though its products are all consumed in attaining this end. Labour is simply a means, then, and therefore instrumental, and we value its products instrumentally rather than for themselves (pp. 79-84; 110-11). A table is only valuable in so far as it makes a suitable resting place for plates of food or for working at, and the carpenter’s work is thus validated.

Arendt’s second category, work, captures our efforts to create something lasting, and art falls into this category. Rather than being consumed like the products of daily life—clothing made to be worn until worn out, couches made for everyday use, food to be eaten—these artefacts are meant to outlive us and to continue on as something of a legacy (pp. 137-8). Her third category, action, transcends even this—it is rather the process, the performance, the experience, and art can be these things, too (p. 198). The countless life drawings and studies that are repeated for the sheer process and not as final drawings belong to this category.

The point, then, is that Arendt has given a lot of thought as to why things that lack functions, or have less obvious functions, might in fact be more valuable: they are what make the human condition something special. Our culture values physical necessities like any other unenlightened creature, lavishing praise on those who concentrate on ‘making a living.’ It doesn’t respect the place of workers like artists who contribute nothing of necessity. But it ought to: such work sets us apart as human.

Perfect weekends for bike rides and picnics by the lakes

* Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).