Posted by: Bruce Proctor | June 24, 2015

Kit Gentry’s description of Joseph Campbell’s (via James Joyce and Aquinas) aesthetic theory

“Proper art, of course, means art performing a function that is proper to art – the kind of function only art can serve. And improper art is art in the service of something else.” Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”

The “Proper” and “Improper” Arts
A theory of aesthetics, courtesy of Professor Joseph Campbell

The late scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, promoted a theory of art derived from the literary works of James Joyce. The idea was first presented in Joyce’s novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1914), but certain aspects of the philosophy can be traced to the 13th Century theologian Thomas Aquinas – so this has been around, in one form or another, for quite a long time. I subscribe to this theory and will try to summarize it for you here, based on my reading of several of Campbell’s treatments of this subject. Campbell’s analysis of art is challenging because it can be accused of being excessively limiting and exclusionary; it says, “This makes the cut, and this does not.” But the more that I consider this issue, the more I agree with Campbell.

The idea is that all art can be divided into two simple categories: “proper” and “improper.” Unsurprisingly, works of “improper” art are not highly regarded under the terms of this theory; nevertheless, I think that it would be helpful to examine them first.

The improper arts can be divided into two types, “pornographic” and “didactic.” These are identified as improper arts based on the types of responses that they generate from the viewer. The pornographic variety generates desire (an impulse to possess something attractive, to move toward something) while the didactic variety generates loathing (an impulse to reject something unattractive, to move away from something). Psychologically or emotionally, both of these types push or pull the viewer in one direction or another – they induce a sort of inner motion, either toward or away from a subject. Because of this tendency toward motion, these responses are called “kinetic.”

Proper art, on the other hand, raises the viewer above the polar extremes of desire and loathing. Instead of pushing or pulling in a kinetic way, it places the viewer in a perfectly stable center, an elevated frame of mind momentarily detached from the biological or social concerns of daily life. Proper art’s primary purpose is to inspire sensations such as awe, astonishment, or wonder – it will strike an inner, spiritual chord beyond the realm of our routine, material existence. The ultimate objective is to stop viewers in their tracks, to arrest their motion, both literally and figuratively; therefore, this type of response is deemed “static,” and the experience of it is called “aesthetic arrest.”

Ah, but isn’t this response a welcome one, an attraction that draws the viewer toward a positive experience, thereby betraying a characteristic of “improper” art? No, it’s different, because the experience of aesthetic arrest involves a deeper type of participation. It’s not merely an experience of liking something. It’s more like stunned amazement. And the types of art objects that elicit this response – or, on an even larger level, the types of life experiences that do so – often involve both positive and negative ingredients, interwoven in such a way as to achieve a peculiar and sublime balance. It’s neither “this” nor “that,” but rather a bit of both – and therefore conveys the sense of a stable center, which neither pushes nor pulls, but instead calms and elevates.

Proper art is also recognized as having a timeless appeal, an ability to evoke a common response from viewers throughout the ages. Great, transcendent beauty can be recognized and appreciated from one generation to another – it doesn’t require some sort of explanation to tell the people of the 20th Century about the concerns of the 15th Century, and so forth. Even the great prehistoric cave paintings still have a power to inspire awe through their sheer grandeur and skill of execution. Therefore, proper art transcends the social concerns of any specific time period.

As a result, political art is dismissed by this theory. It falls into the “didactic” category of improper art, because its purpose is to warn, compel, convince, or persuade – to push the viewer in some direction, you see. “No Nukes,” “Save the Whales,” and “End Apartheid” are all themes of political art – but all are irrelevant to the purpose of proper art. These are ultimately forms of social commentary – which is a perfectly valid form of expression, but not one to be misinterpreted as having anything to do with the value of art.

Proper art does not champion any cause, other than the experience of visual and spiritual satisfaction. Campbell likens the experience of “aesthetic arrest” to that of entering a grand cathedral, an inner space designed specifically to elevate one’s state of mind to a level more conducive to thoughts of a higher, mystical nature, for the purpose of contemplating divinity. Having one’s senses captured by the beauty of a great work of proper art is the aesthetic equivalent of entering the cathedral. It places the viewer on the threshold between the material world (the image that is seen with the eyes) and the transcendent world (the beauty that is perceived conceptually with the mind and heart). As such, works of proper art are intended to function transparently, as windows – one is meant to see through them, to catch a glimpse of a radiance that comes from beyond, something that transcends the artist and even the work itself (i.e., divine, eternal power and beauty).

Improper art, in contrast, functions more like a mirror that primarily reflects the image of the artist. For that reason, it’s a magnet for celebrity art. For instance, there will be plenty of artists who attempt to convince us that their work is important because it champions this cause or that, or because it advances the goal of world peace, or whatever. All of these folks are purveyors of improper art, whether they realize it or not. Their work is about themselves and their own concerns. Appreciation of such work is mainly experienced as an appreciation of the artist’s own personality, intellect or compassion – so this is really about celebrity, not art. The art derives its popular interest and value from the cause or the celebrity that it serves, but not because the art is inherently powerful in itself.

Campbell summed this all up in a very succinct quotation:

“Proper art, of course, means art performing a function that is proper to art – the kind of function only art can serve. And improper art is art in the service of something else.”

Well, there it is – very simple. It’s all about the intended function of the work. But then the question is, “What is the function that only art can serve?” And Campbell says that the proper function of art is to induce an altered state for the viewer, an elevated frame of mind in which the viewer may be made conscious of the radiance of a higher power – something that we might describe verbally through words like beauty, balance, harmony, integrity, grandeur. The work will communicate a sensation of these virtues, but through a visual language, to catch and hold the viewer in “aesthetic arrest,” a state of inner calm – the stable center. The stable center is where one goes to transcend whatever calamity that life might be serving up from one moment to another.

And calamity there will be – of that, we can be certain. But how does one live in a world of calamity? It’s not a question of how we might recreate the world in the image of some idealized, utopian fiction that conforms to our wishes – there’s a lot of art that attempts to do just that, of course, but the result is typically an insipid, cartoon fantasy that doesn’t reflect a single facet of the true grandeur of nature. We see this frequently in paintings of the ocean, where green, translucent waves are so often depicted as backlit by a setting sun, and breaking like so much whipped cream on benign shores. But the reality of the ocean is more beautiful by several orders of magnitude, even though it’s really the most hostile and dangerous environment imaginable: it’s a gruesome business going on down there, a constant life and death struggle in which hundreds of millions of life-forms are perishing, and just as many others are being born, from one moment to the next. And all of this is terribly horrific and strangely beautiful all at the same time. That’s real life. Proper art emerges naturally from the confirmation of such a sublime reality.


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