“Such is the strength of art, rough things to shape,
And of rude commons rich enclosures make.”
James Howell, “Upon Dr. Davies’ British Grammar” (1629).
An unwholesome jungle of rank nonsense has grown up around the concept of art, so that it often seems as if art is a sort of mythical beast—perhaps a talking stag—that stalks this unwholesome jungle late at night. At bottom, art simply refers to that which man has made. It refers to the artificial as opposed to the natural, so that an omelet or a pigsty, be it ever so scorched or ever so smelly, is entitled to the name of art.
These things are works of art because they serve a human purpose and were made to serve some human end. Howell’s “rough things” operate after the design of their own nature. Left to itself, an egg will either hatch or addle. Swept up in the human design of making breakfast, it serves the human end of an omelet. Left to itself, dead wood decays. Swept up in the human design of sheltering tomorrow’s bacon from the elements, it serves the human end of a pigsty.
The word “rude” is likely related to the word rubble, so that stones are rude before they are shaped into the work of art we call a building, and to rudeness they return when that building falls down.
The rank nonsense of which I first complained comes of thinking that poems and paintings are radically different than omelets and pigsties and buildings made of rough-hewn stone. They are in truth only different in their purpose. Words and paints are “rough things” when they are simply sounds and colors, and like wild nature they can be beautiful as such. They become art of a low sort when they are swept up in quotidian human designs such as preserving the walls of a pigsty or placing an order for an omelet.
They become art of a high sort when they are swept up in the transcendent human design of eliciting delight.
What is delight? It is the sudden and exhilarating assurance that there is more to life than addled eggs, rotting wood and rubble. Indeed, without wishing to detract from omelets and pigsties, it is the sudden and exhilarating assurance that human existence does not end even in such lovely things as these. Delight is a fleeting but invigorating respite from omnipresent drabness. Delight is, we might say, an intimation that something more has been promised.
It seems to me that high art fails when it purports to tell us just what this something more is, and that is because the “rough thing” that high art ultimately shapes are not words and paints, but the rude rubble of a human soul. Propaganda shapes that rubble and lifts the drabness with a promise of jam tomorrow. Advertising shapes that rubble and lifts the drabness with a promise of jam today. High art shapes that rubble and lifts the drabness with an indistinct but delightful premonition of just what it will not say.