Art as Discipline; Self-Expression as Decadence

I have argued, and will argue, that art ought not to be a matter either of self-expression or of “impressing” the audience. This matters for many reasons, not least of which is the inevitable historical decline of any art that reduces itself to “expressionism” or “impressionism.”

Believing that art is an expression of the human spirit, the sort of art that a community produces is both cause and effect of its spiritual condition.

It is cause, because whatever the artists theorize about how they became artists and do art is likely to end up in the classroom one or two generations later. Picasso, for example, was trained classically, and some of his early works, during this classical period, are astonishingly beautiful.

However, he developed a disintegrated visionof reality that came to be reflected in his paintings. Lovers of Picasso’s later works who would have trained their students in Picasso’s vision, would have failed to lay the foundations that were laid in Picasso’s training, and the art of painting will have declined as a result.

In our Progressive schools, public and private, we can see the same decline. Teachers are taught that children should express themselves in art, so they flounder and blunder and bluster about trying to teach children to get in touch with their inner lives when the children have yet to learn how to hold a pencil or punctuate a sentence.

They regard the disciplines of the art as limitations and obstacles to free expression. To this I reply with the words of two truly great artists, Wendell Berry and T.S. Eliot.

Wendell Berry replied, in a characteristically condensed spark, when he said, “The sentence is both the opportunity and the limitation of thought.”

Much can be drawn from that sentence and one day I would like to lead a series of discussions revolving around its insights. I will say this much here: An unlimited thought is a thought not thought. An unlimited expression of self is a self unexpressed.

When children are taught self-expression instead of discipline, they are, quite literally, retarded by the training they receive.

T. S. Eliot loved John Donne’s poems, especially in his early life. In fact, one could argue that Eliot was responsible for the rehabilitation of Donne’s reputation in the 20th century. But later on, he came to see a limitation and a weakness in Donne’s poetry that left him deeply unsatisfied as a reader and as a critic. 

Donne was also a preacher, an Anglican priest. It may in the context of Eliot’s reflections on his preaching that Eliot makes this point most clearly. Comparing Donne’s sermons with the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th century Anglican divine,  Eliot says:

Donne is a “personality” in a sense in which Andrewes is not; his sermons, one feels, are a “means of self-expression.” He is constantly finding an object which shall be adequate to his feelings; Andrewes is wholly absorbed in the object and therefore responds with adequate emotion.

This comparison would also merit a whole series of discussions, which I would love to lead. But again, let me highlight two or three points.

First, notice what Eliot regards as the healthy (at least artistically healthy) relationship between the object and the emotions.

Read a book on poetry or take a poetry workshop, and what do they tell you to do? Too often this: find an object adequate to your feelings. Poetry, we are constantly told, is about the emotions. Prose, we are sometimes told, is about thoughts.

So when you write poetry, you are told to scour your memories and your heart for feelings and images, and you are told to draw them together.

This is to confuse blessing with purpose, and in so doing to risk the purpose for the blessing – for if you lose the purpose, the blessing follows.

Instead, Andrewes, because he is “wholly absorbed in the object… responds with adequate emotion.” The emotions follow. The object rules.

Here we see how we should be teaching people to write poetry. Behold. Be held. Contemplate the object. Stay on it. Learn to see. Learn to perceive. Learn to observe. When you do, you will respond with adequate emotion, without being distracted from the object that produces this adequate emotion.

Indeed, by staying on the object, you sustain the very emotion you want to feel. Direct your attention to your emotions and they will shrink away. They don’t like being watched; they don’t want to be written about; they don’t want to be the focus of attention. They want to help us observe the object of our attention (love) by making it enjoyable.

Does love not make this rather obvious, even and perhaps most vividly in love-making? I do not increase my love for my wife or children or friends when I contemplate my love for them. I grow in love for my wife when I contemplate her, and so also for my children and friends.

In fact, at least for most men I know, contemplating our love for each other is a rather embarrassing distraction. Friendships grow through the mutual contemplation of a third object. That is why some of my closest friendships have been with students. That is why working together on a common object (which is a form of contemplation) or thinking together about something that is not immediately useful are essential ingredients of friendship.

The pleasure of friendship seems largely to grow from shared irrelevencies.

When we teach our children any art, therefore, we need to teach them to master the tools of perception first and imitation second.

Even artists trained on bad theory produce great art when they perceive and imitate. Self-expression is disciplined by forms, like sentences, conventions, rituals. Disciplined self-expression has this great advantage over undisciplined self-expression: it can sustain itself through trials, it can endure hardship, it can accomplish great things.

It can produce a bang, when all undisciplined self-expression seems to produce is a whimper.

“You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.”

———————

The Lost Tools of Writing is a writing program based on this approach to writing. We have already seen extraordinary results and will be releasing Level II very soon. It will be available for the 2010/11 school year. Follow the link to the left to learn more.

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4 Responses

  1. I remember when my son learned to dissect he took great care in the actual process. Mind you this took many more hours than his classmates. When done he was able to put the animal back together in a recognizable and whole way. The instructor’s comments were “It does not even appear to have been dissected.” I asked him why he took so much care when others did not. He said that he wanted the animal to still retain its animalness and not look butchered. Perhaps we should adopt the same philosophy for all things we handle. Literature should retain its “literatureness” when we are done. Even more importantly humans should retain their humanity when we rule.

    I was trying to be clever when using the word execute as in meaning to kill. The man who butchers does in fact “execute’ his authority. Sooner or later it will be taken from him. Apparently I am not as clever as I think myself to be. 🙂

  2. Suzanne,

    I think I agree with you. I’m working on another post on aesthetics that suggests that the artist is a ruler. But if he rules for his own sake he destroys his whole kingdom. The reason for rule, the objective of all rule, is always and at all times to fulfill Psalms 1 and 92: to see to the flourishing of the ruled.

    Thus, to be perfectly particular, I would argue that when men butcher the object, they aren’t executing authority but a corrupt form of it: tyrrany.

    We habituate students to tyranny by the way we teach literature in the schools.

  3. Would you agree that some of what you just stated revolves around the issue of authority? It seems to me that men are so busy executing authority over an object that they “butcher” the very nature and purpose of the object they are attempting to reveal. In the end all they reveal is not some new insight into truth, goodness or beauty, but a very old and ugly one, pride.

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