Sunday, April 02, 2006

Alison Croggon's Near-Perfect Definition of Wisdom

In the comments of the post below, "In a Nutshell," Alison Croogon wrote the following inspirational sentences:

"Yes, of course artists have to be intelligent, but that is not by any means the whole of what's required...Artists are not only concerned with ideas, but with responding to the world around them through the sensual media they use - words, paint, rock, their bodies - in ways which bypass cerebral thinking, which focus on the materiality and sensual properties of the things they use, and which seek emotional as well as intellectual response."

That is as close to a perfect definition of what I mean by wisdom as I am likely to find. To improve on it would only be to add more details to the basic idea that wisdom is the ability to see, appreciate, and express as much of the world as possible using as much of one's self as possible: the intellectual and the emotional, the cerebral and the sensual, the comic and the tragic, the just and the unjust, the heroic and the cowardly, the love and the hate -- the list could go on, of course. But to me wisdom is the embrace of all the possibilities of the world, and express them in such a way as to guide others to see them as well.

Thank you, Alison!


John Branch said...

I wrote a comment a while ago, but apparently I managed to lose it. The gist of it is this question: how does political art fit into these concepts of an artist's wisdom?

P'tit Boo said...

There are all kinds of wisdoms and all kinds of intelligence. We tend to think of intelligence as a mind thing and of wisdom as a heart or spirit thing.

That is a really amazing sentence by Alison, I agree.

Alison Croggon said...

Aw shucks, Scott. I'm shuffling my feet. And there I was, thinking I was stupid...I still worry about the word "wise". What about the place of the Fool, a long and honourable tradition in theatre and I think a valuable archetype? We must be serious, yes, but I think it a mistake to take ourselves too seriously.

I do have a speculative answer to that question, John. But it's rather complicated. Certain ways of being and perceiving are rigorously repressed in our society (through social and political and economic conditioning, etc) and their very articulation and expression can question received certainties about who and how we are. ("You must change your life!") Such questions inevitably touch on social relationships at some point or other, and social relationships are the raw stuff of politics: who is more or less powerful, who has and who has not.

But I would say all the same that by their nature these touchings are oblique and hostile to given ideologies, although they may have ideologies of their own... what art introduces is not irrationality so much (I do reject the idea that art is irrational) as unpredictability, in a similar way, perhaps, to those complex equations that result in Mandelbrot designs are unpredictable. Hierachical societies don't encourage unpredictable subjects, though obviously they need some people like that, because they are not useful, and because they may challenge the myths that such societies necessarily create around themselves. To question given realities is a profoundly political act. All the same, to look at art only through political lenses is rather limiting. On the other hand, not acknowledging the political nature of art can falsify its power.

Scott Walters said...

John -- I think political art that is wise would recognize that in only rare instances are political players all good or all evil. I am reminded of a phrase Lionel Trilling used: well-intentioned people who have no doubts. It is the lack of doubt that reflects lack of wisdom. The ability to recognize the underlying ethical assumptions of an opposing view, and address those assumptions with respect, would be an indication of political wisdom. This is not to say that moral outrage is not permissable, just that there is an attempt to address the opponent as a human being. In the political realm, I look at Martin Luther King's speeches as a model. He combined moral strength with a resistance to the demonization of the opponent. He would call on the opponent's higher angels -- the common values espoused in the words of the Founding Fathers, the Bible, literature -- while also maintaining a strong moral foundation. While I'm certain that it would have felt better to demonize the white imperialist patriarchal society (bell hooks' term), he took a much more difficult, and ultimately wiser, approach. I would like political art to share that complexity, dignity, and humility.

John Branch said...

I had a few vague notions on the subject of political art (having to do with encouraging action along with altering perception), but I really wanted to hear what Alison and Scott had to say. Thanks to both of you.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm curious again what political art you mean, Scott... what you describe seems pretty much like agitprop, which has its place, of course; but what you could call political art seems to do a whole lot more (or other) than that, and that the best art does indeed rest on ambivalences. Interesting to think of Luther King next to say James Baldwin, who is an artist rather than a politician, and thus, while very political, also in a way less interested (I mean in terms of disinterest). He was, as I recall, fairly critical of King, as well as disconcerted by the Black Panthers. But I'd say he's much harder to fit into the humanist mold you're setting out here.

Don R. Hall said...


I understand that you've written me off as a hopeless cynic and I'm trying to avoid writing you off as a PollyAnna, but you're description of "wise political art" seems naive, IMO.

Politics is about power, plain and simple. Power is not acquired, transferred or challenged by politely demonstrating the humanity of both sides of an issue. Yes, MLK was one side of a specific political fight and demonstrated the 'angel' side of the struggle but without the blatant racism and hate of the Southern whites, his message does not transcend.

Without the brutality of the British, Ghandi is just another really nice guy in a diaper.

As for political art, the middle road that examines both sides of an issue equally may be more responsible and gentile, but runs the risk of being dull and uninspiring - a much worse offense for art, IMO. Brazil, A Modest Proposal, The Ruling Class, Dr. Strangelove, The Player, Bob Roberts, Fight Club, The Crucible, Dogtown, Slaughterhouse Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and 1984 certainly paint a gray picture of the world, but they all have in mind a definitive and angry point of focus and that is that there is something wrong.

Political art without teeth is simply polite discussion and polite discussion has never had a whole lot of impact politically.

Scott Walters said...

Don -- I disagree that, in order to be "exciting," any art, including political art, has to be simplistic. There is no doubt that melodrama is much more "exciting" than tragedy, but is it better art? I am not suggesting toothless political art, but rather political art that is not brainless.

Your naive Pollyanna,

Don R. Hall said...

Then, I believe, we are singing similar songs but with a different set of instruments backing us up.

I like my political art smart but mean; you like it smart but inclusive.

The Ever Cynical,
D. Hall