Brain Pickings

The Forms of Things Unknown: A Timeless 1963 Meditation on the Role of the Creative Arts in Society

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“Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.”

In 1963, English anarchist, poet, and culture critic Herbert Read penned The Forms of Things Unknown: An Essay on the Impact of the Technological Revolution on the Creative Arts (public library; public domain), exploring the role of art in society, both in relation to science and philosophy and as a singular expression of the human creative spirit, and offering a meditation on wonder and the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

Read begins with a historical lament:

A distinction which runs through the whole development of human thought has become blurred during the past two hundred years. Implicit in all ancient philosophy, acknowledged by medieval scholastics and the natural philosophers of the Renaissance, and even by Locke and Newton, is a difference of kind, if not of value, between wisdom and understanding. By wisdom was meant an intuitive apprehension of truth, and the attitude involved was receptive or contemplative. Intellectus was the name given to this faculty in the Middle Ages. Understanding, on the other hand, was always a practical or constructive activity, and ratio was its name — the power by means of which we perceive, know, remember and judge sensible phenomena. Philosophy was conceived as an endeavour to perfect this constructive power of the mind as an aid to wisdom. To clarify perception, excluding all distortions due to emotion and prejudice; to analyse statements so that our knowledge is consistent; to establish facts, so that our memory is consolidated; to bring the inquiring will into harmony with the intuitive intellect, so that our judgment is true and constant — such have been the aims of all who called themselves philosophers.

Read echoes Abraham Flexner’s fantastic insights on the usefulness of “useless” knowledge:

We may admit, with the logical scientist, that it is an illusion to assume that the human mind can have any direct access to truth — truth in Plato’s sense of a pre-established harmony waiting for our intuitive understanding. But what we must not admit is that knowledge is only knowledge when it is based on those elements of perception that can be reduced to measurements and verified in a laboratory — so-called functional knowledge. Science functions within the limits of its sign-system — that is to say, it must confine itself to the cognitive content of its particular kind of language; but beyond this scientific sign-system, quite apart from it, is the symbolic system of art, which is also a particular kind of language with a cognitive content.

On the logic of art:

I can think of no criteria of truth in science that do not apply with equal force to art. Art has its language of symbols whilst science has a language of signs, but a symbolic language also has its strict system of rules, based on convention. The creative imagination has a logic no less strict than the logic of scientific reasoning, and the same ideal of clarity is held by both activities. Further, there is no sense in which verifiability is a necessary constituent of scientific method in which it is not also a necessary constituent of artistic creation. Great works of art do not survive through the centuries as expressions of desire or as valuations of behaviour. They state such universal truths as the artist is capable of creating; they search for no certainty and express no ideal. They are constructions, concretely physical. Emotions may be inserted into them: they may be clothed in appearances of good and evil, of tragedy and joy; but these expressive functions are not the verifiable content of the work of art. What is verifiable is a perceptible form which communicates a notion of being, a man-made piece of reality.

Some of Read’s points, however, fall short of a necessary understanding of how art and science complement one another: He considers the sense of wonder an exclusive property of art and philosophy, one nearly destroyed by “intellectualism,” but we’ve heard such great scientific minds as Richard Feynman (“The purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more.”) and Robert Sapolsky (We will never have our flames extinguished by knowledge. The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.) eloquently claim it as the heart of science:

Philosophy, according to Plato, is based on wonder. ‘The sense of wonder,’ he said, ‘is the mark of the philosopher.’ ‘It is through wonder,’ explained Aristotle, ‘that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and the sun, about the stars and the origin of the universe.’ We are all perhaps ready to admit the historical independence of philosophy, but what we forget is that philosophy must be continually renewed by this sense of wonder, and that wonder itself is what I would call a liminal awareness — that is to say, sensation stretched to its physical limits. The arts are the exercises by means of which we stretch the intelligence to these limits, and at these limits renew the sense of wonder.

If this sense of wonder is not renewed we get a mental cancer which might be called conceptualism or intellectualism.

(For a related meditation, see Milton Glaser on the arts and the capacity for astonishment.)

Still, Read adds beautifully to some of history’s most memorable definitions of art and of science:

Art is the composition of perceptual experience into meaningful or significant patterns, and all knowledge and intelligence is a reading or interpretation of such patterns. A myth is a reading of ritualistic patterns, and from myth arises all religion and philosophy. Magic is a reading of animistic symbols, and from magic arises all knowledge of the external world, all science.

He then makes a case for creativity as a kind of social glue:

To be able to break down the barrier of space between self and other, yet at the same time to be able to maintain it, this seems to be the paradox of creativity.

[…]

A society in which every man would be an artist of some sort would necessarily be a society united in concrete creative enterprises: in a single creative enterprise, because in such a society the arts are unified.

Further:

Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.

[…]

A culture is a creation of time, of a time in which the icons made by the artist so work on the imagination of man that they precipitate ideas, communicate feelings, establish human bonds.

Read speaks to the contemplative value of the arts in the face of “the absurdity of existence”:

It is difficult to conceive a humanism that is not a literary and retrospective humanism, litterae humaniores, and by definition culture implies calm, withdrawal from distractions, leisure, contemplation. A work of art is something we can contemplate, and we contemplate it not to escape from ourselves, nor to escape from the world in the contemplation … of an autonomous or independent world, but to be reconciled with ourselves and with the absurdity of existence. The greatest works of art, as I have already said, have always been images or myths of reconciliation.

[…]

The great artist is not the one who unites mankind on a basis of feeling — that is a recipe for the rabble-rouser — but the one who by transcending personal feelings discovers symbols for the universal archetypes of the psyche. These are no doubt residues of the emotional experiences of the human race, forged into shape and significance by mankind’s sufferings and longings for peace of mind and immortality.

He concludes with a sentiment about culture, shared by other creators — including Brian Eno, who argues culture is created as “we confer value on things” and it is “the act of conferring that makes things valuable,” and Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom “culture is developed from within”:

One dogma is implicit in all I have said. A culture must rise spontaneously from the collective unconscious through the fiery hands of our lame Vulcans. Culture is a created work, not an idea. It is the patient accumulation of many works, and responsible for each work is a Vulcan, beating the constituent metals on his anvil. The instinct that guides his hand is a sure one, the movement not consciously calculated, but responsive to intimations that are beneath all sensations, primordial.

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