For such a small word, "art" poses quite a challenge whenever we attempt to offer a definition. Like the Greek god Hermes (patron of both artists and thieves) art itself is an eternal shapeshifter. Today we're likely to hear that art is a "mirror of our culture," providing "rigorous social and intellectual critique," or that it's primarily about "self-expression," a means for creators to communicate something of their particular human experience to others. Art of any kind, from painting to poetry, from film to music, dance and beyond is also often described as "entertainment." While art may serve all of these functions (and more) it's worthwhile (and a bit fun) to explore whether there might be a "hierarchy of functions" involved when we ask the question, "What is art?" Creators themselves have offered some illuminating responses to this very question.
Inaugurating this new series of posts on the nature of art are the insights of Octavio Paz, the renowned twentieth century poet, diplomat and Nobel Laureate. Although a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, Paz remained awed by the power of the pre-Columbian art forms of his native Mexico--especially the massive sculptures created by the Mexica/Aztec.
Paz found parallels between the modernism that surrounded him in Paris, New York, Tokyo and beyond and the symbolic power of the archaic work of his homeland. His Essays on Mexican Art is a marvelous work devoted to these parallels among other themes. Here he describes an encounter with the stone figure of Coatlique:
“[The] enigma of the massive block of carved stone paralyzes our sight . . . the statue is an object that both attracts and repels us, both seduces and horrifies us. . . . Without ceasing to be what we see, the work of art reveals itself as that which lies beyond what we see”...The Great Coatlicue takes us by surprise not only because of her dimensions . . . but because she is a concept turned to stone."
"If the concept is terrifying--in order to create, the earth must devour--the expression that gives it material form is enigmatic: every attribute of the divinity--fangs, forked tongue, serpents, skulls, severed hands--is represented realistically, but the whole is an abstraction. The Coatlicue is, at one and the same time, a charade, a syllogism, and a presence that is the condensation of a mysterium tremendum . . . a cube of stone that is also a metaphysic."
What Paz concludes about the function of art after his encounter with the figure of Coatlique is one of the finest descriptions on this critical subject that I've ever come across:
"Art was not an end in itself, but a bridge or talisman. A bridge--the work changes the reality that we see for another: Coatlicue is the earth, the sun is a jaguar, the moon is the head of a decapitated goddess. The work of art is a medium, an agency for the transmission of forces and powers that are sacred, that are other. The function of art is to open for us the doors that lead to the other side of reality."
In this continuing series of posts, I'll share a variety of opinions from great minds of the past and present on the question "What is Art?". If you'd like to read a bit more about Paz and his relationship with the enigmatic Coatlique (along with a bit of C.G. Jung and arts scholar Dore Ashton thrown in) take a look at this short essay entitled, "A Metaphor in Stone."
I'm Mary Antonia Wood, Ph,D. I share both contemporary & ancient insights on the origins & realities of artistic expression. Creators of all types will discover enriching & practical wisdom about their vocation as expressed through the lenses of philosophy, mythology, archetypal & depth psychologies, neuroscience and more. Take a look.