Artistic Purity As a Misguided Goal

Last weekend, I had a conversation with a magazine publisher at a Ukrainian restaurant about how advertising influences our artistic expressions. Although I completely agreed with him that advertising (i.e. money) does affect/influence our expressions, a few days later, I started wondering: What exactly are we trying to protect? Obviously, it is some sort of purity, and we feel that advertising taints, distorts, contaminates, or pollutes it.

At the dinner, I brought up an example of such contamination: a PBS documentary about feminism that I thought was so diluted by various interests and influences that it turned into an educational/informational video, rather than a form of art. It lacked a point of view. It had all the facts and no story.

From such examples, we tend to assume that the opposite is our ideal; an expression free of any contamination. But upon reflecting on this further, I started to wonder if we are just falling victim to the habitual pattern of our thought. There is another possibility. Perhaps the opposite is not the ideal but there is an ideal balance to be struck.

As Derrida pointed out, seeking of purity, origin, and essence is a prevalent Western habit. Wittgenstein also pointed this out in what he called “family resemblance”. His point was that Western thinkers habitually seek one essential common feature in defining a word or an idea. In asking questions like, “What is time?” our tendency is to seek an essence that is common to all that we call “time”. And, once such an essence is defined or found, our tendency is to police it and protect it from contamination, because we begin to use it as our foundation to build more structures (or arguments) on top of it. (Think of how lawyers use their language.) This is what Derrida called “transcendental signified”, and both philosophers argued that such notion is misguided. That is, the essence that we seek doesn’t actually exist when we keep peeling away the layers of an onion. Meaning or signification cannot escape its context, that is, who we are speaking to, when, where, why, how, etc.. Our expressions are always already contaminated. It is the necessary condition of its existence.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film, Rikyu, contemplates this question. Rikyu, the 16th century Japanese artist, was financially supported by his master Hideyoshi, the powerful politician. At one point in the film, one of his disciples criticizes him for selling his soul to his master, and for obliging him by building a tea room made from pure gold. Rikyu has no logical defense to the criticism other than to say that he was actually surprised by the beauty of the golden room himself, and questioned his disciple whether it was him who is letting the monetary value of gold get in the way of perceiving the beauty of gold as it is.

That is, the object of art is always necessarily impure. The golden tea room represents all sorts of impurities and contaminations—financial, political and otherwise. But should it be the goal of an artist to remove the impurities? What Rikyu implies in the film is that it isn’t. What we should question is the purity or the impurity in how we experience art. The impurity, the compromises, and the contradictions of the art object reflect life as it truly is. It is a result of human interactions which is always already messy and impure. Trying to protect its purity is as meaningless and misguided as trying to police how people use a particular word. There isn’t any essence to be protected in a word independent of the people who use it. Everything in life is in flux or in “play”. Art should reflect that, not resist it.


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