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What Is Art? (Part 1.5): An Integral Approach

In a delightful twist of fate last week, an email appeared on my computer screen (via my subscription to the Core Integral newsletter) that advanced and expanded the concepts I attempted to shed light on with my last blog post, about what art is and how to use it as an effective communication. So, in an impromptu Part 1.5 of my ongoing inquiry, here is the text of that newsletter with a link to the lecture it refers to, followed by a brief review of its major concepts.

“Think of a piece of art that you are particularly struck by. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a painting, a piece of music, a film, or any other expression of beauty that you find yourself impressed with or inspired by. Visualize the piece in your mind’s eye—or, if you like, open a new tab in your web browser and Google it, so it’s right in front of you. As you admire your preferred object of beauty, ask yourself a simple question: how can I tell what this means? How do you answer?
  • a) The meaning can be found in the original intent of the artist. If I want to know what a piece of art means, I should simply ask the artist.

  • b) The meaning can be found in the artwork itself. The artwork is a whole unto itself, and everything I need to understand it is fully present in the actual piece of art.

  • c) The meaning can be found in the response of the viewer, which means that a single piece of art can have multiple meanings, depending on who happens to be observing it.

  • d) The meaning can be found in all the social circumstances surrounding the artist, since no artwork is created in a vacuum. If you want to know what a piece of art means, you need to consider where and when it was made, its historic and techno-economic influences, etc.

  • e) All of the above.

If you answered “all of the above” there’s a very good chance this talk is for you. But here’s the weird thing: people don’t always know that’s even an option. In fact, it’s still overlooked most of the time. Most artists, philosophers, and critics have devoted their entire lives and careers to just one of the first four choices, while passionately trying to negate the others. Listen as Ken describes each of these major schools of interpretation, how they originated, and how they all fit together into a more cohesive vision of art and aesthetics.”

(An audio file of Ken’s talk can be streamed here.)

In this hour lecture, leading Integral philosopher Ken Wilber talks about the various schools of artistic interpretation that have arisen in the past few hundred years, and how each used in isolation is inadequate as a means of reaching the deepest or most comprehensive appreciation of visual art. He gives the historical and cultural context surrounding such movements as Formalism (too dismissive of an artist’s intention), Romanticism (too dismissive of external social forces), and other useful but incomplete -isms that have made major contributions to the art world. Ken argues that one must integrate as many of these schools of thought as possible, in order to build a more complete framework for understanding (or creating) art that accesses knowledge from each of the “4 Quadrants” that comprise reality (interior, exterior, individual, and collective).

Ken Wilber’s theory states that all art is created by a combination of all 4 quadrants of reality, and therefore can only be fully understood with knowledge derived from all 4 quadrants.

He refers to the concept of artistic intention quite a bit, which I was thrilled to hear from a non-artist, since increasing the level of intentionality that I paint with has been one of my areas of focus for the past few years (which I mentioned as part of my internal dialogue in Part 1: Self Inquiry). What intention requires, as Ken eludes to, is knowledge and context: a framework of understanding broad enough to shed light on all the different choices an artist can make. The opposite of intention is what I’ve experienced as “the manifestation of indecision,” a state of ignorance or naiveté in which the art-making process resorts to blind instinct and shot-in-the-dark crapshoots that one merely hopes will look good or manage to communicate something in the end.

What Ken doesn’t mention is that understanding all of this, of course, requires a level of motivation (to spend time learning) that perhaps only the most dedicated artists or enthusiasts would possess. So while I thoroughly appreciate his critique and advice, I feel it’s a bit of wishful thinking–if not a bit patronizing as well–and in being “over the heads” of many laypersons, it therefore still won’t solve the great debate for most.

But if you’re an ultra art nerd like I am, and have a quiet hour to devote to a dry intellectual oration, you will love the complex yet logical perspective Ken offers as his answer to the questions “What is art?” and “How do we make sense of it?”

“You really need to have a comprehensive philosophy of reality if you’re going to [effectively] interpret the meaning of art, because all of these dimensions impact an artwork, and therefore are part of the art’s meaning. And if you’re going to unfold that meaning, then you have to have a really rich, comprehensive philosophy of contexts.” –Ken Wilber

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