Albert Murray Defines Art

Greg ThomasAesthetic, Art & Creativity, Article, Free, Integral Post, Perspectives Leave a Comment

In the opening of a scholarly essay titled “On Operationalizing Aspects of Altitudes” (published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice), Zachary Stein and Katie Heikkinen provide a summary of the Integral Model from a philosophical perspective. They write: “From Aristotle through Kant and Hegel down to [Charles S.] Peirce and [Wilfrid] Sellars, there was a project aimed at searching out the most primordial distinctions in terms of which to classify objects and forms of knowledge.”

The writer and intellectual Albert Murray (born 1916 in Mobile, Alabama) fits within a philosophical tradition of system building based on primary definitions and orienting generalizations, which connect and expand in a way that might be deemed as integral, and that compose what he calls “Cosmos Murray.” Whether or not his thought and frameworks of analysis are Integral remains to be seen and decided by Integral readers and scholars; however, what’s indisputable is Murray’s deeply pluralistic and interdisciplinary approach to knowledge. A prime example, in which he elaborates definitions of art and aesthetic statement, follows.

But first, for those who are not familiar with the work and thought of Albert Murray, some context.

The October 4, 2010 issue of New York magazine features a section called “9 Over 90” in which Murray is featured.

The caption reads: “The author of the essay collection The Omni-Americans and the seminal jazz history Stomping the Blues, Murray has remained at the center of the city’s intellectual life for decades. His most recent novel, The Magic Keys, was published when he was 89.”

That’s a decent intro but it’s also crucial to know that Murray’s ideas have crystallized into institutional form by way of the largest organization in the world devoted to jazz, Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC). Wynton Marsalis, one of the world’s best known jazz (and classical) musicians, is the Artistic Director of JALC. Here’s how he described Murray’s role in the formation of Jazz at Lincoln Center in the recently published Albert Murray and the Aesthetic Imagination of a Nation (University of Alabama Press, 2010):

This was a very serious decision for me. So I went to see Al. I sat down with him, and we talked for four or five hours about it. And he was just laying it out for me, what the meaning of an institution is, what you can do, how. He just laid out the whole thing . . . he put it in a context. That allowed me to make a decision the next day. He didn’t tell me what to do. He gave me clear information. “You can do this or you can do that. This means this and this means that. And this came from this and that became that.” He gave me historical references. He’s so rich with that information.

When I started with Lincoln Center, there’s wasn’t really anything to be on board with. It was just three concerts I was asked to do in the summer. But Al developed the intellectual foundation of what was to become Jazz at Lincoln Center. He said, you should have all four components, curatorial, archival, educational and ceremonial. That foundation came from him.

The following essay, “Art as Such,” can be found in Murray’s book From the Briarpatch File: On Context, Procedure, and American Identity. It’s the text from a keynote address he gave at the Alabama State Council on the Arts Statewide Arts Conference on February 17, 1994:

The following remarks are based on the assumption that there is no such thing as applied art. Art does what it does on its own terms or it is not art. Art should not be confused with propaganda, advertisement, ideology, or hype of any kind. These remarks are concerned with the primordial nature and function of aesthetic endeavor, and thus they are about what any work of art can reasonably be expected to represent.

Nor should this be confused with the old so-called ivory tower notion of art for art’s sake. On the contrary, the primary emphasis here is on art, which is to say aesthetic statement, as fundamental equipment for existence on human terms. The primary concern of art is not with beauty per se, as many people seem to think, but with the quality of human consciousness.

Thus these remarks are geared to a very pragmatic conception and approach to art. So are all the books that I have published as a student of cultural dynamics and as an apprentice of the creative process. . . Naturally I hope what follows will add up to a useful reiteration of essential definitions and the indispensable objectives that are crucial to all decisions about artistic undertakings of any kind.

I also hope you will agree that a conference of artists, arts administrators, board members of arts organizations, educators, public officials, and other interested people is a most appropriate audience for the review and reiteration I have in mind. After all, who, for instance, could possibly be more disturbed by the threats that the pressure to be politically correct represents to the ambitions of serious artists who accept the challenge that the great world classics embody?

Nor, by the way, does it help matters in the least that the pressure and restrictions of political correctness are being exerted in the guise of well-intentioned permissiveness in the interests of what our current crop of do-gooders think of as the empowerment of the downtrodden. Why should anybody’s efforts to equate inaccuracy and mediocrity with excellence be indulged?

I submit that such questions are directly related to the policies, proposals, requests, and programs that councils on the arts have to consider every day. In any case, I hope you will agree that a review of fundamental definitions and assumptions is always useful, even to master craftsman.

Not that I really expect to do justice to the issue in the format of an after-dinner talk. After all, I usually deal with such matters in semester-length university seminars. But you can always supplement what I am saying here by reading The Hero and the Blues, which is about literature, and Stomping the Blues, which is about music, and also The Omni-Americans, which is about the inadequacy of images based on social science theory and categories rather than precise insight and hard-earned wisdom.

In any case, point one: Art as such is a means by which the raw materials of human experience are processed into aesthetic statement. In this instance, to process is to stylize. So the work of art is stylization become statement, aesthetic statement. That is the objective of the creative process. And one assumes that it is also the sole objective of all grants from councils on the arts, since grants for other kinds of statements are funded by other councils and agencies.

What a work of art represents, which is to say re-presents, presents again, reenacts, reproduces, recalls, is not actuality per se, no matter how vivid the evocation of concrete detail, but rather how the artist feels about something. Indeed literal facts and figures are only incidental to a work of art. After all, given adequate stylization, fantasy and deliberate distortion will work just as well. Let us not forget that fables and fairy tales are as believable as naturalistic novels, precisely documented movies, and news-oriented television.

According to Susanne K. Langer, what art as such really records is the life of human feeling, how it feels to be a human being in this or that situation. Hence the feeling tones represented by tragedy, melodrama and farce. And Kenneth Burke suggests that art is really a stylization of a basic attitude toward human experience. Hence expressive forms that condition people to accept the necessity of persistent struggle, on the one hand, and forms on the other hand that lament and protest human predicament. Incidentally, those who accept the necessity for struggle are also given to forms for the celebration of courage before danger, gallantry in defeat, and also forms for rejoicing in victory.

Another definition. Works of art are the product of an elegant extension, elaboration and refinement of rituals that reenact the basic (and thus definitive) survival technology of people in a given time, place and circumstance. Which is why the main concern of art is the quality of human consciousness. Thus, it is also fundamental existential equipment in that it not only provides emblems of a basic attitude toward experience but also conditions and disposes people to behave in accordance with a given lifestyle (or survival technology)!

Which brings us to a brief natural history of aesthetic statement as such. First there is ritual, the ceremonial reenactment of the basic survival technology. Rituals enable anthropologists to define the basic occupations and security measures and thus also the characteristic orientation, mindset, or preoccupations of any given social configuration, whether tribal, regional or national. Primal rituals include ceremonial reenactments of hunting, fishing, sowing, tilling, and harvesting, and warfare as well as continuity through purification and fertility.

Ritual reenactment supervised by a priesthood becomes religion, which also generates its own specific internal ceremonies of devotion and propitiation, which I mention only in passing along with magic, which is another kind of ceremonial reenactment.

In addition to religion and magic there is the no less aboriginal matter of playful reenactment, which we refer to as recreation, and which indeed is literally a matter of re-creation, re-presentation, and re-producing. Thus the essential character or disposition of a nation as well as tribe may be discerned in its games and toys.

But the key point of this brief natural history is that it is from the playful reenactment of primal ritual that art as such is mostly derived. I submit that not to understand this is to miss the very basis of aesthetic evaluation and critical judgment.

As you know, some play activities are restricted by rules and regulations, and some are also supervised by umpires and referees and judges, and some are not. But you also know, even the most closed codified play activity permits personal options from which not only individual expression but also individual improvisation, stylization, and elegance emerge. And it is the extension, elaboration and refinement of such option-taking that adds up to the aesthetic statement that is a work of art. Which is to say, a product of elegant artifice.

A few more words about the role of play in the creative process. There are, according to Roger Caillois in Man, Play and Games, four categories of play activity and two directions of playful effort. The categories are competition, chance, make-believe, and vertigo. And playful effort may be just a matter of fooling around, on the one hand, or a matter of gratuitously increasing the difficulty of execution on the other. This aspect of playful reenactment is obviously a key source of the extension, elaboration and refinement that adds up to works of art.

So now a few words about the relative level of sophistication of technique and sensibility involved in the creative process. What this results in are three levels of achievement: folk art, pop fare, and fine art.

Folk art should not be confused with primitive art, although some visual art commentaries refer to it as modern primitive. To the extent that primitive artifacts are perceived as art rather than as ceremonial fetishes, they are neither folk art not pop fare but fine art, because they are the handiwork of the most sophisticated skill in the culture of their origin.

Folk art is the output of the least refined skill and the least precise information and the least subtle sensibility in a culture that is also capable of producing pop fare and fine art. It may be genuine and deeply moving, but even so it is also likely to have a more limited range of appeal than pop fare or fine art. Which is not to say that it is emotionally less authentic than pop fare. It is, on the contrary, a more honest representation than pop fare, which is, after all, often given to gimmickry, cliché, cheap sentimentality and downright vulgarity.

Yet the range and skill involved in pop-level stylization are such that it may include elements that are not only crude but also illiterate, along with devices expertly appropriated from the most highly calibrated levels of fine art. A major shortcoming of pop fare is shallowness and the rapidity with which most of it goes out of fashion.

Which brings us to fine art. Being the ultimate extension, elaboration, and refinement of the most representative images, anecdotes, and soundtracks, it may be sometimes less immediately accessible than folk art in its native province or pop fare in the world at large. But it is not precisely the function of courses in art appreciation to make fine art accessible? The very first obligation of critical briefings and reviews is to mediate between the uninitiated audiences, viewers, or readers and the work of art.

The purpose of reviewing these distinctions in degrees of sophistication involved in stylization is to remind you of the role that taste plays in all aesthetic matters. How can you make any truly useful decision about the arts if you are deficient in your perception of nuance or indifferent to propriety? Now, I am keenly aware of the fact that many of our fellow Americans become somewhat uneasy, if not embarrassingly defensive, at the mere mention of aesthetic taste.

But taste in the arts is pretty much the same as it is in the kitchen and the dining room. It is the sense of the optimum proportion and processing of the ingredients required by a given recipe. In the arts taste begins with your sensitivity to the nuances of a given process of stylization being such that you would not confuse folk art, pop fare, and fine art. Each has its place. But it is fine art from which come the masterpieces that add up to the classic examples that make up the universal anthology, the worldwide repertory, the museum without walls that underlies our most comprehensive conception of human potential or indeed the human proposition.

If any of this sounds the least bit elitist to any of you, ask yourself if you really prefer anything but the most competent craftsmen, doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, or even servants, etc. Most people obviously prefer all-star quality over mediocrity in sports. Why not in the arts?

Greg Thomas

About Greg Thomas

Greg Thomas has over 25 years of experience as a writer, producer, broadcaster and educator, and has been featured in publications as various as The Root, All About Jazz, Salon, London's Guardian Observer, the Village Voice, Africana, American Legacy, Savoy, New York's Daily News as well as the scholarly journal Callaloo. He was the Editor-in-Chief of Harlem World magazine from 2003-2006.