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Reply To: Proper and improper art and mythology


Intriguing question, Drewie. My first inclination is to say no – but then again, maybe there is some resonance here.

Summing up Joyce’s thesis, proper art is that which does not inspire one to act, but evokes aesthetic arrest: the “aha! moment when one is transfixed, transcending day world concerns. Improper art, on the other hand, takes two forms: what Joyce terms pornographic, and didactic art.

Though what we think of as pornography today certainly falls under the umbrella of Joyce’s label, that’s not the whole of what he calls pornographic art, which includes anything which inspires desire (such as a beautiful photograph of an alpine snowscape in a travel magazine advertisement, prompting one to book a vacation in the mountains). Didactic art is anything which inspires one to action for a cause (such as a haunting image that conveys the life-and-death need for social action to end child abuse). That doesn’t mean those aren’t brilliant creations or worthy goals – just not proper art as Joyce sees it.

Of course, Joyce, and Campbell, are referring to conscious intentions of an individual who creates the art to serve that intention – but individuals do not create myth; mythology emerges from the collective unconscious of a culture. So, in one sense, we are comparing apples to oranges.

But I come back to that sense of intention. An artist who intends a specific response response in his/her audience, motivating either fear (a didactic response), or desire (the pornographic response), the same two temptations presented to the Buddha, is creating improper art.

I can see a correlation between that and a “mythology” intentionally created – such attempts to force a myth are improper  and, ultimately, doomed to failure.

Hitler was the master of wielding myth as a tool of the state in the twentieth century. He and Goebbels and their cohorts consciously created and imposed what might be thought of as “didactic” mythology (one based on fear of the Jews and a desire for the glory of days-gone-by) that compelled a whole nation to take up arms. It worked in the short term (e.g. the pomp and pageantry of the rallies, the shadow projections onto the Jews), but is difficult to sustain.

Another example would be Akhenaten’s abandoning the mythology of his people, substituting one – the worship of a single God, Aten – that seems wholly his own creation. That revolution in thought barely lasted the 17 years of his reign, fading away soon after his death as the old Gods re-assumed their roles.

You can’t impose a myth by fiat. Though not corresponding in exact detail with Joyce’s conceptualization re art, that, to me, comes closest to what I would define as “improper”: a manufactured myth.