“There is no work of art without a subject,” said Ortega — and with him here I do not demur.
Subject matter isn’t the only component of art, nor is it the most complicated, but it is the most fundamental. It is the component toward which all others are geared.
Subject is what the artist presents. It is the end. All other attributes are the means.
In the following sketch, for example, the subject-matter is the human eye:
The paper, the medium, the artist’s style — these are the means by which the artist has presented her subject.
Because the artistic process is a process of choosing from innumerable specifics and because the artist is the one who performs this act of choosing, the artist’s choice of subject matter thus discloses, with mathematical precision, what the artist regards as relevant in human life. This is as true of poets and poetry as it is of musicians and music, painters and painting, sculptors and sculpting, novelists and novel-writing, and all other legitimate forms of artistic expression, as well.
What is the driving force behind it all?
Where, in other words, does art originate, and what is its ultimate purpose?
“The function of art is to recreate, from the rough material of actual existence, a new world that will be more marvelous, more enduring, and more true than the world that common eyes look upon,” wrote Oscar Wilde, and continued:
“Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful.”
Poems, stories, paintings, plays, sculptures, songs, and all artistic mediums are important because human beings are a conceptual species.
This, among other things, means that humans survive by use of our reasoning brains.
Humans evolved neither the balls of bulls, nor the trunks of elephants, nor the claws of bears, nor the necks of giraffes, nor the wings of eagles, but the brains of Homo sapiens, with a capacity to think.
We think by means of abstractions.
Poems and stories and other legitimate art-forms concretize our abstractions — i.e. our ideas.
Art starts with an abstract idea, such as jealousy, and, in an artistic work like Othello, shows us how in human life jealousy manifests.
Jealousy is the abstraction. How Shakespeare dramatized it in his play is the concrete.
Similes and metaphors are also a form of making the abstract concrete, and this is why they, too, are such an integral part of art.
The degree to which a story — or any other artistic creation — persuades or seems plausible is the degree to which it is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful.
Painting and drawing perform the same function as Othello, in a purely visual manner.
Sculpture does so by visual-tactile means.
Music — which is unique among the arts — captures emotional abstractions, via sound and rhythm and melody, so that when you hear music, you feel yourself perhaps excited, or melancholic, or thoughtful, or aroused.
To qualify as a legitimate art-form, the medium must have the power to convey ideas (i.e. abstractions) in a perceptual form — which is to say immediately — and that is the defining characteristic of all art.
This is why culinary art is not, in the true sense, an actual art but a skill: the best foie-gras in the world cannot convey even the simplest human abstraction, let alone something as complex as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The same is true of tile-setting, gem-cutting, goldsmithing, silversmithing, carpentry, surgery, sharp-shooting, and many, many other difficult skills and trades, as well. They don’t qualify as actual art, valuable and important as they may be, because they don’t have the power to capture or convey a wide range of abstract meaning: They cannot objectify reality through their medium.
That is what art does. It objectifies the human experience. This is why art is a human necessity. It creates, from the “rough material of existence,” and out of it presents something new.
To truly qualify as art, the medium must be able to reproduce some part of nature, through the selective process in which the artist alone engages, and then infuse this selective, reproduced data with conceptual content. The medium must be able to convey abstract meaning — which is to say, a theme.
Abstractions, as previously stated, are thoughts — or, to put that more precisely, abstractions are the human method of grasping reality. We do this by means of thought.
And we think by means of words.
Reasoning is done through language.
To reason is to comprehend.
Which is why, philosophically speaking, esthetics is properly regarded as a sub-branch of epistemology: the science of thought.
Good stories and good poems recast reality and show us our abstractions made firm, solid, specific, concrete.
Good stories and good poems condense and concentrate the human experience.
In describing the sea at dusk as “wine-dark water,” Homer gave us, in three careful and carefully placed words, a stupendously evocative depiction of nature — a hyper-depiction, one could say. Thus Homer made concrete a facet of reality in a way that’s unignorable and unforgettable and utterly beautiful.
In this way, poems and stories enhance reality — heighten it — as all excellent art does. This is why well-painted palm trees (for instance) often appear more vibrant and alive than actual palm trees.
Paradoxically, it is the artists themselves who are among the most inarticulate in explaining the nature and function of their respective arts and mediums, and to get beyond their artsy talkie-talkie, so that we may see at last what the true nature and substance of art is — and, more specifically, what gives rise to that nature and substance — we need not listen at all to the artists or even the critics but instead simply observe how the artistic drive develops in children.
Observe the stories that children write.
Observe what the child with her big stick of sidewalk-chalk draws upon the concrete:
A large yellow crescent with blue stars around it.
A white house in a green field.
A blazing sun over black mountains.
Ask yourself: what drives the child to make those drawings? What drives the child to tell those stories? What is that child thinking about that makes her want to set it down in concrete form? What dictates her subject matter? Why did she choose this and not that?
What, in short, is the child doing? And what is that process doing for her?
Why did prehistoric humans paint animals and hunting scenes upon cave walls? What drove that urge? Why did they tell stories? Why did they chisel figures from stone and mold figures from clay? Why did these women and men choose the subjects they chose? And what did those stories and paintings fulfill within them?
Why have humans always invented stories?
Why have humans always enjoyed listening to those stories, or seeing them played out?
Why the human invention of musical instruments?
Why did David “dance before the Lord with all his might”?
What need is being fulfilled in this?
The answer to all these questions is identical:
Each one of those things, through whichever chosen medium, captures the abstract and makes it real and immediate. It makes it concrete.
It recreates and celebrates the human experience.
Humans — the rational animal — need this because our rational minds operate in the opposite manner: the rational mind is thoughtful, inductive, long-range. Art brings the entirety of the universe into our immediate perceptual ken. Art provides us with this power.
It is an awesome power.
Art makes the conceptual perceptual.
That is why stories and art are important.
“There is no mood or passion that art cannot give us. Art is mind expressing itself under the conditions of matter, and thus, even in the lowliest of her manifestations, she speaks to both sense and soul alike…. It is through art, and only through art, that we can realize our perfection; through art, and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence…. Like Aristotle, like Goethe after he had read Kant, we desire the concrete, and nothing but the concrete can satisfy us.”
Wrote Oscar Wilde.