"Proper art, of course, means art performing a function that is proper to art - the kind of function only art can serve.  And improper art is art in the service of something else."  - Joseph Campbell, "The Power of Myth"


The "Proper" and "Improper" Arts
A theory of aesthetics, courtesy of Professor Joseph Campbell

The late scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, promoted a theory of art largely derived from the early 20th Century literary works of James Joyce, although certain aspects of the idea can be traced back as far as the 13th Century writings of Thomas Aquinas. I subscribe to this theory and will try to summarize it for you here, based on my reading of several of Campbell's treatments of this subject.  

Campbell's analysis of art is challenging because it can be accused of being excessively limiting and exclusionary.  It says, "This makes the cut, and this does not."  But the more that I consider this issue, the more I agree with Campbell. 

The idea is that all art can be divided into two simple categories: "proper" and "improper" art. 

Unsurprisingly, works of "improper" art are not highly regarded under the terms of this theory. But since their attributes are more tangible and a bit easier to define than the “proper” variety, let’s begin by describing what they are - through a process of elimination, we can more easily narrow our focus toward understanding the nature of proper art.

The improper arts can be divided into two types, "pornographic" and "didactic." These are identified as improper arts based on the types of responses that they generate from the viewer.  The pornographic variety generates desire (an impulse to possess something attractive, to move toward something) while the didactic variety generates loathing (an impulse to reject something unattractive, to move away from something). 

Psychologically or emotionally, both of these types push or pull the viewer in one direction or another - they induce a sort of inner motion, a lateral move either toward or away from a subject. Because of this tendency toward motion, Campbell calls these responses "kinetic."

The kinetic motivations behind the “improper” arts are derived from common sensations that we all experience on a daily basis - they come from the material world of natural impulses. They’re about personal gain, on the one hand, and self-preservation on the other - desire and fear. We know that stuff well, so these varieties of art are easily accessible to our human sensibilities.

In contrast, the “proper” category of art drifts into a state of experience less common for us: sheer awe or delight, entirely free from personal considerations of gain or loss. This is the realm of the spiritual - and, as tends to be true of all things spiritual, it gets a bit fuzzy around the edges.

The basic idea is simple, though: proper art is supposed to induce an altered state in the mind of the viewer. Instead of pushing or pulling in a lateral way, proper art elevates the viewer at a perfectly stable center, above the mundane conflicts of desire and fear - a frame of mind momentarily detached from the biological or social concerns of daily life. Proper art's primary purpose is to inspire sensations such as awe, astonishment, or wonder - to strike an inner, spiritual chord beyond the realm of our routine, material existence. 

The ultimate objective of proper art is to stop viewers in their tracks, to "arrest" their motion, both literally and figuratively; therefore, this type of response is deemed "static," and the experience of it is called "aesthetic arrest."

Ah, but isn't this response a welcome one, an attraction that draws the viewer toward a positive experience - thereby betraying a characteristic of "improper" art? No, it's different, because the experience of aesthetic arrest involves a deeper type of participation. It's not, "Oh, I like that!" Instead, it's a more fundamental expression like, “WOW…!” It's more like stunned amazement - and, most importantly, the experience has an elevating influence on the mind of the viewer.

Another distinctive feature of proper art is that the types of art objects that elicit this elevating response often involve seemingly opposite or contrary ingredients, interwoven in such a way as to achieve a peculiar and sublime balance. It's neither "this" nor "that," but rather a bit of both - and therefore conveys the sense of a stable center, which neither pushes nor pulls, but instead calms and elevates.

Proper art is also recognized as having a timeless appeal, an ability to evoke a common response from viewers throughout the ages. Great, transcendent beauty can be recognized and appreciated from one generation to another - it doesn't require some sort of explanation to tell the people of the 20th Century about the concerns of the 15th Century, and so forth. Even the great prehistoric cave paintings still have a power to inspire awe through their sheer grandeur and skill of execution. Therefore, proper art transcends the social concerns of any specific time period.  

As a result, political art is dismissed by this theory. It falls into the "didactic" category of improper art, because its purpose is to warn, compel, convince, or persuade - to push the viewer in some direction, you see.  "No Nukes," "Save the Whales," and "End Apartheid" are all themes of political art - but all are irrelevant to the purpose of proper art.  These are ultimately forms of social commentary - which is a perfectly valid form of expression, but not one that should be misinterpreted as having anything to do with the definition of art.

Proper art does not champion any cause, other than the experience of visual and spiritual satisfaction. Campbell likens the experience of "aesthetic arrest" to that of entering a grand cathedral, an inner space designed specifically to elevate one's state of mind to a level more conducive to thoughts of a higher, mystical nature, for the purpose of contemplating divinity. Having one's senses captured by the beauty of a great work of proper art is the aesthetic equivalent of entering the cathedral. 

Or, if cathedrals aren’t your cup of tea, any alternative will do, as long as it works for you. It could be a Hindu temple, a tall forest glade in the fog, or any other space in which you’ve just been absolutely leveled by the grand qualities of the place. The thing that we’re after here is the “wow!!” factor. “Wow” is a condition in which the stable center can be accessed.

Works of proper art place the viewer on the threshold between the material world (the image that is seen with the eyes) and the transcendent world (the beauty that is perceived conceptually with the mind and heart). As such, works of proper art are intended to function transparently, as windows - one is meant to see through them, to catch a glimpse of a radiance that comes from beyond, something that transcends the artist and even the work itself (i.e., divine, eternal power and beauty).

Improper art, in contrast, functions more like a mirror that primarily reflects the image of the artist. For that reason, it's a magnet for celebrity art. For instance, there will be plenty of artists who attempt to convince us that their work is important because it champions this cause or that, or because it advances the goal of world peace, or whatever. All of these folks are purveyors of improper art, whether they realize it or not. Their work is about themselves and their own concerns. Appreciation of such work is mainly experienced as an appreciation of the artist's own personality, intellect or compassion - so this is really about celebrity, not art.  The art derives its popular interest and value from the cause or the celebrity that it serves, not because the art is inherently powerful in itself.

Campbell summed this all up in a very succinct quotation:

"Proper art, of course, means art performing a function that is proper to art - the kind of function only art can serve.  And improper art is art in the service of something else."

Well, there it is - very simple. It's all about the intended function of the work. But then the question is, "What is the unique function that only art can serve?"  And Campbell says that the proper function of art is to induce a frame of mind in which the viewer may be made conscious of the radiance of a higher power - something that we might describe verbally through words like beauty, balance, harmony, integrity, grandeur. The work will communicate a sensation of these virtues, but through a visual language, to catch and hold the viewer in "aesthetic arrest," a state of inner calm - the stable center.  The stable center is where one goes to transcend whatever calamity that life might be serving up from one moment to another.

To that extent, proper art is directly related to the significance of religion, and is universal in its relevance to all faiths. In Joseph Campbell’s view, religions facilitate the elevation of the spirit through the verbal language of storytelling and ethical teaching - while proper art also elevates the spirit, but through a purely visual language. Thus, art and mythology are recognized as two sides of the same coin, sharing the same essential purpose of leading us toward the stable center.

Below, I’ve compiled a few answers to common objections that I’ve encountered in discussions with others about this topic.

Objection #1: If a work of art is tangible, how can it be also transcendental?

I think that Campbell would say that a tangible art object is “transcendental” only to the extent that it functions like a window - that something intangible sort of shines through it. He believed that works of art have to stand alone within the boundaries of their own picture-planes - in other words, if the image is deemed to be significant only because it accurately describes or refers to some external subject, then there’s really not much going on there. It becomes mere illustration at that point, and will only be meaningful or compelling to people who have some personal attachment to the subject.

There has to be something universal about the art object that captures the eye of a wider audience, and that usually has to do with things such as composition and color interaction and other formal elements of visual relationship. Those relationships, if arranged well (a “fortunate arrangement,” in Campbell’s words), can strike a visual chord that opens a sort of magic window to the perception of harmony and beauty - which are intangibles, hard to define in literal terms, but we know them when we see them. These qualities are potentially timeless in their appeal.

Objection #2: By this definition, there is NO ART in existence that fits into the proper art category...because there is no piece of art that EVERYONE in this world reacts to in the same way. 

Yes, this is a real sticking point that artists struggle with all of the time: the fact that art is a subjective realm, where opinions differ widely. But I can tell you that art education is really helpful. For instance, when I was young and hadn’t seen a lot of art, I admired certain things that I no longer admire today, because I’ve seen beyond their superficial attributes and have learned to appreciate stronger ones. Ironically, those stronger qualities are often very subtle things, and require some training to perceive. As one’s experience develops, the things that fall out of favor tend to be of the “improper” category, because they are ultimately recognized as being a bit thin, lacking the full substance of proper art.

Objection #3: ”WHO determines what is proper art? The observer? The critic? The majority? The creator of these categories?” And why is it important that art be categorized like this?” 

Everyone cited above contributes to the determination, collectively, over a very long period of time. Certain artists fall in and out of vogue, and back in again, throughout history. But it does appear that the cream eventually rises to the top if a civilization survives long enough to preserve its work for future generations. 

This is a very important point: the theory is not intended to determine what should be preserved and what should not. It’s not a dictatorial gatekeeper. History is the only true gatekeeper in art. The theory is merely intended to try to explain WHY some work ultimately appears to be stronger and more timeless than the rest.

Campbell’s assertion is that the greatest work holds the affection of the public through multiple generations not only because it reflects quantifiable excellence, but also because it has something that touches a metaphysical cord in the mind of the viewer.

True, this will never be a 100% universal experience - but then it’s also true that many people are not sufficiently equipped with the experience and training to apprehend the significance of what they’re seeing, or they approach the work with some sort of preexisting filter that prevents them from seeing. There are a lot of personal variables. 

But it’s important to categorize art in this way for the same reason that it’s important to contemplate the nature of true quality in any realm of endeavor. Quality is important. Quality is a value, and one that can be more deeply appreciated when we understand the nature of it.

Objection #4: ”Doesn’t Campbell’s theory discredit your own representational work, because the viewer’s focus is fixed on the subject rather than on the formal visual relationships of the picture?” 

As a representational painter, the subject is very present in my work. Many of my pictures could be classified as "regional" or "provincial," which is to say that they depict places or subjects that are of sentimental interest to people who may not know or care anything about painting as a craft. And sentimental interest has very little to do with the function of proper art. For instance, lots of people enter my Hawaii galleries looking for paintings of places that they've visited during their Hawaiian vacation, and they may buy a painting for that reason alone. What they're looking for may be little more than an expensive postcard or souvenir.  

Campbell has said that this circumstance is really problematic if a painting's primary function is to refer to something outside of itself, rather than to stand independently as a treasure all its own. If so, the value of the work is likely to be judged solely by its ability to evoke the thing that it refers to - it's constantly pointing away from itself and toward some subject in the external world.  

Ideally, a painting should function as an independent art object, with its own unique power derived from the qualities that exist within the bounds of its picture plane - it's all about how the various parts of the picture relate harmoniously to one another, and how the parts relate to the whole and the whole to the parts. If the sole significance of the work exists outside of the picture plane, beyond the frame that separates it from the outside world, then this can diminish the power of the work.  

For instance, portraiture is especially troublesome in this regard; Campbell has said, "It's very hard to do that in a portrait" - meaning, to achieve what he envisions as the purpose of proper art - because the client who commissions a portrait wants that painting for sentimental reasons, and looks to the painting not so much as a work of art, but as a reference to the sitter, to something other than the painting itself.

I believe that Campbell did regard abstract work as the purest example of proper art, since it reduces the experience to purely visual relationships that are unique to the art object, without ties to external associations. But this is not to say that pictures of recognizable things are automatically impermissible. He only said that it's more difficult, not impossible. For instance, who would argue that the "Mona Lisa" is a failure as an example of high art? No modern viewer of that work can personally associate with the sitter as an external entity, because she's been dead for centuries - but millions of people still want to see the Mona Lisa because it's a powerful picture.  

With that said, however, there are lots and lots of portraits - the vast majority, really - that only serve the sentimental needs of those who commission them. This is not to say that those pictures shouldn't be painted, because there is a real desire for work that serves that purpose alone, and there's a perfectly valid market for it.

But we're simply making a distinction between different levels of achievement in painting. There's a complex hierarchy of achievement, where some things are higher than others, and some of them reach so high that they really transcend the ordinary. But everyone argues about which work belongs on which level, and they cite different values to defend those subjective decisions. We're all obliged to determine what values we will cite to support our own assessments.

In my own work, I do try to make my landscape pictures transcend mere provincial status by paying plenty of attention to purely formal elements of visual art: composition, color relationship, etc. If the work is strong on an abstract level, then it has something special that I can build on. No matter how faithfully I represent the subject, a picture will never be special as an art object if it lacks a strong abstract foundation. That's a prerequisite. If I were to simplify the work to the point where the subject becomes unrecognizable, we should still find that there's a set of visual relationships occurring there which is able to survive the simplification and retain its own unique strength. So subject must always be secondary or even tertiary to the artist, although the public viewer typically regards it as primary because they have not yet been initiated into this way of thinking about art. I guess its our job to try to initiate them.

I would also point out that some subjects have such inspirational power of themselves, as experienced in real life, that a faithful depiction of them in art is likely to contribute to the desired function of the work as an awe-inspiring, elevating experience. So I think that a subject, if well-observed and represented, may have the potential to contribute to the strength of the work in the "proper" way, rather than to automatically detract from it. This is one of the primary reasons that I continue to paint in a representational manner.

I also tried to invest my pictures with a certain ring of truth that applies to larger considerations of nature, to aspects of creation that apply to the whole package, rather than just to this or that portion of it. So each picture attempts to function as a metaphorical representation of life as a whole - it's not so much "a picture of this subject," but rather "a picture of life as experienced through this subject." Whether I've ever really succeeded in doing that is debatable - it is a tall order, after all - but, in theory, it should make a picture more significant than the sum of its subject alone. The picture becomes a window affording a view of something greater than itself.


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