What Art is Trying to Tell You: George Santayana

January 09, 2019

Notes on the George Santayana book Reason in Art "Reason in Art"
By George Santayana, 1905

“That art is, prima facie and in itself, a good can’t be doubted. It is a spontaneous activity, and that settles the question,” so wrote philosopher George Santayana more than a century ago. It is a universal human tendency, like collecting objects, or burrowing.

But what is it good for? And what art is ‘good’ art?

These are the questions Santayana sought out to address in “Reason in Art,” one of the volumes of his work "Life of Reason."

Art is born from the need to humanize and rationalize objects, an attempt to better the conditions of existence. But at the same time, art is hopelessly fickle, inward-focused, and has no concern whatsoever in improving the outside world.

And yet what those scornful miss about art is that it can possess “a spiritual dignity,” not found elsewhere, something that becomes representative and expresses an ideal.

When a piece of art loses its vitality in our eyes, it is not because of age, but by its insignificance. “Art becomes rudimentary not by age but by its irrationality,” Santayana writes.

Creation of Art

“If art be play, it’s only because of all life is play, in the beginning,” Santayana writes.

It’s the sketch you doodle out on a notepad, the melody you make up to sing to yourself as you fold laundry. It is the act of venting yourself. The format that this expression takes is itself can be of secondary interest. "Art needs to find a material relatively formless which its business is to shape," he writes.

“The miracle in creation, or inspiration, consists of nothing but this: that an external effect should embody an inner intention.” If someone, in a moment of idleness twists a branch of flowers into a wreath, partakes in the creation of a decorative art.

When the form is is utilitarian, to say one of possible usefulness, the art acquires an intrinsic value. "Spontaneous action leads to art when it acquires a rational function," the philosopher writes. This can happen when the artist tires of fiction or games, and wants to explore reality and truth itself.

The art that sticks with us “creates figments most truly representative of what is momentous in human life.” Ideas that don’t resonate, and are sustained in the world by manifestations of themselves, grow dormant, while the successful ideas are fed by their subsequent realizations.

Human Folly, Painful Genius

Notes on the George Santayana book Reason in Art

Making good art however is not so easily deterministic, however, and there are many ways in which people can fall short on the task.

One is the limitation of perception. Every person’s thinking runs along a guided trail of their own making. “Perception and imagination are themselves automatic, and run in grooves, so that only certain forms, in certain combinations, will ever suggest themselves to a given designer,” Santayana writes.

Sometimes, conscious will not even play into it, just as the sheep jumps a wall because its peers have done so. Santayana warns of falling into "sentimental physics," which is the idea that happiness and freedom arise solely from hard labor

Then there is hubris, the ability to of man to fool himself into grandiosity. "A will that never found anything to thwart it would think itself omnipotent," Santayana writes. This is particularly dangerous for people with a limited ability to learn from their mistakes. "The idiot can't learn from experience at all because a new process in his liquid brain doesn't modify structure," he writes.

Other Quotes and Notes

“Art has an infinite range. Nothing shifts so easily as taste and yet nothing so persistently avoids the directions in which it might find most satisfaction.”

“Born of suspended attention, [art] ends in itself. It encourages sensuous abstraction and nothing concerns it less than to influence the world.”

“Nothing is really so poor and melancholy as art that is interested in itself and not in its subject.”

Notes on the George Santayana book Reason in Art

“To understand how the artist felt, however, isn’t criticism. Criticism is an investigation of what the work is good for.”

“Isaiah is scornful of idols made with hands because they have no physical energy; he forgets ... they represent something, and so have a spiritual dignity which things living and powerful never have, unless they too become representative, and express some ideal.”

“No personal talent avails to rescue an art from labored insignificance, when it had no steadying function in the moral world, and must between caprice and convention."

"If popular fancy finally sicken on games and fictions, it could find entertainment in the play of reality and truth."

"So utility leads to art when its vehicle acquires intrinsic value and becomes expressive"

“Spontaneous expression such as song, comes when internal growth in an animal system vents itself.”

“A change in object is the surest and most glorious way of changing a perception.”

“If he happens, by a twist of the hand, to turn a flowering branch into a wreath, thereby making it more interesting, he will have discovered a decorative art, and initiated himself auspiciously into the practice of it.”

Animal nature drives other creative behaviors as well, such as burrowing or collecting objects.

“These practices aren’t less spontaneous than the others, and no less expressive. But they seem more external because the traces they leave on the environment are more clearly marked.”

All instrumental arts, however indispensable, are burdens & should be abridged as much as possible

“A perception is itself an activity or art, and like all others, terminates in a product which is a good in itself, apart from its utilities.”

“To throw the whole mind upon something isn’t so great a feat when the mind has nothing else to throw itself upon.”

A reproduction established itself in the wake of death, representation confronted the dispersion born from experience.

“Ideals which can’t be realized, and are not fed at least by partial realizations, soon grow dormant.”

The will “being elastic, grows definite and firm when it’s fed by success.”

Artwork by Tauba Auerbach, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.