What Art is Trying to Tell You: George Santayana

January 09, 2019

Tauba Auerbach, Paula Cooper Gallery "Reason in Art"
By George Santayana, 1905

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.

“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."

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.

Tauba Auerbach, Paula Cooper Gallery

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.

Art and Engineering

Art is not about the artwork itself, which is but a husk of the original creative spark, Santayana argues. “What we call museums, mausoleums rather, in which a dead art heaps up its remains—Are those the places where the muses intended to dwell?” he writes. “We do not keep in showcases the coins current in the world. A living art doesn’t produce curiosities to be collected but spiritual necessaries to be defused.”

Everything comes from this lightning strike of creation. In some cases, the creative act happens in the arts, though in many cases it can happen with any profession. Santayana: “The joys of creating aren’t confined moreover to those who create things without practical uses. The merely aesthetic, like rhyme and fireworks, isn’t the only subject that can engage a playful fancy, or be planned with a premonition of beautiful effects.”

Life is primarily about a set of feelings, as we are often fooled into thinking what gives life value as external to life itself.

Art comes to us through these feelings, in what Santayana calls “warm moments.” These are fleeting but they leave artifacts, in the form of systematic opinions, for entire lifetimes. Studying relics, we can be locked into a perspective, seeing beauty outside of this range as being wrong somehow.

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.

Nostalgia can be a trap. “While men may develop their early impressions more systematically, and find conformation in various quarters, they’ll seldom look at the world afresh, or use new categories in deciphering it," he writes. "Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves.”

Tauba Auerbach, Paula Cooper Gallery

Sometimes, we don't even get as far as thinking for ourselves, just as the sheep jumps a wall because its peers have done so. Santayana warns of falling into "sentimental physics," the notion 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.

For the artist, capturing a moment of brilliance offers no guarantee of future success. “A complete mastery of existence achieved at one moment gives no warrant that it will be sustained or achieved at the next,” Santayana writes. “The art of the past is powerless to even create similar art in the present, unless similar conditions recur independently.”

“A happy result can be secured in art, as in life, only by intelligence. Intelligence consists in having read the heart, and ciphered the promptings latent there, and then in reading the world and deciphering its law and constitution, to see how and where the heart’s ideal may be embodied.”

The artist in her truest state is always creating, always expanding her understanding and feeding that understanding back into the art. There is never a need for a retake. "The ideal artist, like the ideal philosopher, has all time and all existence for his virtual theme,” Santayana 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.”

Tauba Auerbach, Paula Cooper Gallery

“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.”

Tauba Auerbach, Paula Cooper Gallery

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.”

“Life, whatever its complexity, remains always primarily a feeling.”

The superstition “that what gives life value can be something external to life.”

“On those warm moments hang all our cold systematic opinions and while the latter that fill our days and shape our careers it is the only former that are crucial, and alive.”

“What might seem to us wrong about [art] is the expression of knowledge and passion beyond our range. It will suffice that we learn to live in the world of beauty, instead of merely studying its relics.”

“...A public performer of any sort that thrusts before us a spectacle justified only in his inner consciousness makes himself a nuisance. A social standard of taste must assert itself here, or else no efficacious and cumulative art can exist at all.”

“It will not suffer him to dote on things however seductive which rob him of some nobler companionship ... Good taste comes therefore from experience…”

“...For utility and logic are themselves beautiful, while a sensuous beauty that ran counter to reason could never be, in the end, pleasing to an exquisite sense.”

“Sense is the native element, and substance, of experience. All its refinements are still part of it, existentially.”

Tauba Auerbach, Paula Cooper Gallery

“Practical people might leave the artist alone in his oasis and even grant him a pittance on which to live, as they feed the animals in a zoological garden— did he not intrude into their innermost conclave and vitiate the abstract cogency of their designs.”

“To be interested in the changing seasons is ... a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring. Wisdom discovers these possible accommodations as circumstances impose them...”

“It’s for want of education and discipline that a man so often insists petulantly on his random tastes, instead of cultivating those which might find some satisfaction in the world, and might produce in him some pertinent culture.”

“Tomes of aesthetic criticism hang on a few moments of real delight and intuition. It’s in rare and scattered instances that beauty smiles even on her adorers, who are reduced, for habitual comfort, to rendering her past favors.”

“In the actual disarray of human life and desire, wisdom consists in knowing what goods to sacrifice and what simples to pour into the supreme mixture.”

“It’s one thing to make room for genius and to respect the sudden madness of poets through which possibly some god may speak. And it’s quite another not to judge the results by rational standards.”

“After all, the chief interest we have in things lies in what we can make of them, or what they can make of us.”

Tauba Auerbach, Paula Cooper Gallery

“To be bewitched is not to be saved, though all the magicians and aesthetes in the world should pronounce it to be so.”

“The monks, knowing that men shouldn’t feed silently like stalled oxen, appointed someone to read aloud in the refectory.”

“Any absolute work of art which serves no further purpose than to stimulate an emotion, has a about it certain luxurious and visionary taint. We leave it with a blank mind, and a pang bubbles up from the very fountain of pleasure.”

“To impress a meaning and a rational form on matter is one of the most masterful of actions. The trouble lies in the barren and superficial character of this imposed form.”

All too often art “too much resembles an opiate, or a stimulant. Life and history are not thereby rendered better in their principle, but a mere ideal is extracted out of them and presented for our delectation in some cheap material, like words or marble.”

“When a mind is filled with important and true ideas and sees the actual relations of things, it can’t relish pictures of the world which wantonly misrepresent it.”

“Thus there would need to be no division of mankind into mechanical, blind workers, and half-demented poets, and no separation of useful from fine art, such as people make who have understood neither the nature nor the ultimate award of human action.”

“To gloat on rhythms and declamations, to live lost in imaginary passions and histrionic woes, is an unmanly life, cut off from practical dominion and from rational happiness.”

“By dwelling in its mock heaven, art may inflict on men the same kind of injury that any irresponsible passion or luxurious vice might inflict.”

“The artist becomes an abstracted trifler, and the public is divided into two camps: The dilettante who dote on the artist’s affectations and the rabble, who pay him to grow coarse. Both influences degrade him, and he helps to foster both.”

“In that rare case, his art will expand, as his understanding ripens. He won’t need to repent and begin again on a lower key.”

“A child plans towers of Babel. A mature architect in planning would lose all interest if he were bidden to disregard gravity and economy. The conditions of existence, once they are known and accepted, become conditions for the only pertinent beauty. In each situation, the plastic mind finds an appropriate ideal.”

“A dilettante may indeed summon inspiration whence he will, and a virtuoso will never lack some material to keep him busy.”

“They feel they are champions of what is most precious in the world, as a sentimental lady might fancy herself a lover of flowers when she pressed them in a book, rather than planting their seeds in the garden.”

“The wings of genius serve [the artist] only for an escapade, enabling him to skirt the perilous edge of madness and of mystical abysses.”

“...real men who can’t think it a real blessing to be lost in joys that don’t strengthen the character and yield nothing for posterity.”

“The wonder of an artist’s performance grows with the range of his penetration.”

“Emergence of arts out of instincts is the token and exact measure of nature’s success and mortal happiness."

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