What is “the Art” anyway?
I must confess that I don’t know yet. At least, not well enough to understand why it exists, how it has evolved or what is its current status in our society. But I want to give you my opinion, uninformed or even misinformed as it is, so that you will, at least, understand my growing passion for it. In the process, I hope to better understand what the Art really means to me.
Before beginning to write this post, however, I decided to “assist” my opinion-making and look up the existing definitions of the word “art”. At first, I used the online Oxford Dictionaries, always my dictionary of choice. Most definitions there are geared toward the visual arts:
“Creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture.”
But it also provides a more general definition:
“A skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice.”
Utterly unsatisfied, however, I went on searching for a more philosophical definition on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website. The very first paragraph drove me away instantly:
“The definition of art is controversial in contemporary philosophy. Whether art can be defined has also been a matter of controversy. The philosophical usefulness of a definition of art has also been debated.”
I am not sure if I can think philosophically at all, but I am sure I don’t want to analyse a huge (possibly useless) controversy just to get to a definition of art. All I want is a functional definition that could guide my understanding of the Art of Memory. With that intent, Wikipedia (as always) was of great help:
“Until the 17th century, art referred to any skill or mastery and was not differentiated from crafts or sciences. In modern usage after the 17th century, where aesthetic considerations are paramount, the fine arts are separated and distinguished from acquired skills in general…”
This helps explain my difficulty in accepting most current definitions — they all relate in some way or another to Aesthetics, a field of Philosophy I still don’t even comprehend well. As a youngster, I had no idea why someone would apply for Arts in college. What for? Isn’t art just something to be appreciated, mindlessly enjoyed? I’ve never had much sensibility for aesthetics. I’ve always been too practical to waste time admiring. I had to actually do something to feel the beauty in life — contemplation has never been my thing.
While the ignorance of youth has been slowly ablating as I read, learn and grow old, my own definition of art still holds traces of my past preconceptions. It does not include any connotation about visual arts per se, being much more akin to the pre-17th century use of the word “craft”. It is similar to skill in the sense that it is something acquired through practice. But it’s not just that.
The Oxford definition of art, for instance, is completely redundant as to the definition of skill itself. Skill is “the ability to do something well”. If we substitute it in the aforementioned definition of art, we get:
“The ability to do a specified thing well, typically one acquired through practice.”
Skill can be an innate ability, but it can surely be also acquired through practice. Should art be distinguished from skill just based on the amount of practice? Alternatively, should one’s level of ability be used to make such distinction? If you know how to touch-type 40 words per minute, you have a skill, but if you do 200 words, are you now an artist? Even if the level of ability is important, it sure is lacking from the above-mentioned definitions. In fact, the definition of skill mentions “to do something well”; the definition of art does so only indirectly through the word skill.
One definition in the Oxford Dictionaries states that works of art are those “appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. While I am not sure that being able to transmit “emotional power” implies a higher level of skill (although I think it does), it is definitely closer to the point I want to make.
Art must have to do with some elevation of the soul. Art is skill developed to the point that it inspires awe in men. This definition, as imperfect as it is, is useful enough for my reasoning in two ways.
First, it excludes more mundane activities such as touch-typing. Although I accept the possibility, I seriously doubt that someone who achieves a given (high) level of proficiency in touch-typing will ever feel awe when doing it. I respect that ability very much (and envy those proficient in it), but by “awe” I mean some kind of strong movement of the soul, not a mere excitement or feeling of accomplishment or competence. Not all skills can inspire men. A work of art, or simply the activity of an art, moves one’s soul from a lower state to a higher state. This higher state may be transmitted to others if the product of your art has any exterior manifestation (such as sculpture or music), but this is not necessary by definition.
Second, it encompasses the Fine Arts without being dependent on them. It is clear that the Sistine Chapel or the Trevi Fountain inspire awe in men, but so does the much more abstract Art of Reading. The latter has not any exterior manifestation — your mind manifests the art and your soul is the only spectator — but its end-result is as real as any sculpture or Italian fresco.
The Art of Memory is another great example and I’ll further these arguments when talking about it in later paragraphs, but another question must be answered before proceeding:
What is “memory”?
A synthetic definition is found here and reproduced below:
“Memory is the sum total of what we remember, and gives us the capability to learn and adapt from previous experiences as well as to build relationships.”
Such definition, however, demands further defining of the term “remember” (from Oxford Dictionary):
“Have in or be able to bring to one’s mind an awareness of (someone or something from the past).”
Although remembering is a word commonly used interchangeably with recalling, Aristotle’s seminal work “On Memory and Recollection” makes it hard, instead, to differentiate between memory and remembering (to be true, it is also hard to distinguish between remembering and recalling through his work). Memory seems to be the expression or the capacity for retaining an expression of perceptual experiences (a mnemonic trace or image). He uses Plato’s wax model to describe memories as impressed affections stamped on some receiving surface (a part of our souls, I believe). Remembering should then be some way of retrieving such impressions, but he refers to both memory and remembering as:
“….the state of a presentation, related to a likeness to that of which it is a presentation.”
The term likeness seems to relate pretty well to the term mnemonic — memories would be mnemonic representations of actual facts or experiences. The main distinction between memory and remembering would be one of time-lapse — memory is formed at the time of the original experience while remembering occurs only after a given time has elapsed.
Lest I digress and enter the controversy of remembering versus recalling, I should instead restrict myself to this post’s original objective. I am sure dozens of other definitions coming from the field of Neuroscience, for instance, would also significantly add to this discussion, but my point here is not to find the “true” definition of memory (if that will ever exist). As when trying to define art, all I want is to find a working definition — something to visualise when thinking of the Art of Memory.
I see memory as the collection of “passive” thoughts one has. They may have been past facts once, or emotions or experiences, but they have all been converted to thoughts at some point and stored somewhere in our minds. They may be stored in the form of a mnemonic trace, a likeness, or some other kind of representation, but what matters is that they are let alone, passively waiting to be useful again — if ever. When you remember, somehow these thoughts are re-assessed and made useful by recombination, moulding or recall (being used to fire other thoughts). What is active is the act of thinking, remembering, recalling or reasoning — memories are passive. But just like a powerful multicore computer, which has a huge processing (thinking) ability, is rendered useless without memory, an intelligent person is not better than a catatonic one without it. The building blocks of her thoughts, the raw material of her ideas, the elements that form her terms, propositions and arguments are missing — the intelligent person has nothing to be intelligent about.
An artist too is nothing without memory.
How would Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel if he didn’t remember — a lot? I am not just talking about the nine scenes of the Book of genesis he based his work on. I am talking about how people looked like when nude or how the texture of their clothes felt like when dressed. I mean really remembering. Yes, he could gaze at someone and attempt to copy the physical traces he saw, but that’s not what we see when we stare at that ceiling. No copy of human physical traces would transmit what we feel when doing so. It’s not only visual characteristics that we see, but an amalgamation of reality perceived with experiences and emotions and impressions amassed by the artist throughout his life and metamorphosed (God knows how!) into colours and strokes and movements that elevate us to a flabbergasted and speechless condition of awe. It is memory mutated into visual patterns on the ceiling. It is memory converted into augmented reality by skill. It is art — it is the Art of Memory visually exteriorised.
So, what is the Art of Memory after all?
I see it as the skill of consciously storing, accessing and making readily available passive thoughts — our memories — to be further processed through intelectual effort. The key word here is “consciously”. We store, access and make readily available millions of thoughts every day, every second, when we do the most mundane actions of ordinary life. We would not be able to drive if we didn’t remember what a red sign meant, or that when you looked at the mirror the last time there was a car speeding towards you from the left or that you are driving because your wife or husband needs your help at home. We use memory unconsciously all the time with great success, so we don’t realize how much more we could do if just we would do it consciously. I am not arguing that Michelangelo had to master the Art of Memory through mnemonic techniques to accomplish his magnificent deeds; he was a genius. I am arguing instead that we, who are not geniuses, can also accomplish magnificent deeds in so many fields of life just by conscious efforts of the mind.
If we remember it all, we will be artists of the soul.
The Art of Memory does not itself provide a work of art, but it makes them possible for the untalented. All of us have talents for one thing or another, but the Art stretches our grasp to unchartered territories. The Art of Memory is what fills us with a kind of “potential energy” that can create awe. A huge rock balanced on top of a steep cliff has the potential to fall and be shattered to millions of pieces as a lot of energy is released. In a similar but opposite way, infinite small pieces of information are spread throughout our minds and we can coalesce them into a huge “rock of thought”— or a “Sistine Chapel of thought”— if we so desire. But we need to add energy to the mixture. And this energy comes from a conscious and active process of the mind that has the capacity of boosting our natural abilities of processing memories to extremes never imagined.
The Art of Memory can be used in many different ways and, for that reason, we don’t always see it as an art. Michelangelo could paint a chair red; he would be using such a tiny portion of his art that he could be mistaken by a common painter. You can use the Art of Memory to remember phone numbers or birth dates. Useful as these skills are, they are only a tiny fraction of what the Art can provide. Even when mental athletes memorize a deck of cards in 30 seconds or less (an impressive feat I’ve been training daily to do), he is also using a small portion of the art, one that is easily confounded with mere technique — even if an extremely developed one.
An art has the potential to inspire awe in men. Not the awe you feel when witnessing an impressive mental feat. I mean awe when perceiving a new reality, awe that accompanies the enlightenment of knowledge, of seeing better, of unraveling even the tiniest bit of Life — awe produced by a glimpse of wisdom. That’s the Art of Memory I visualize when I think of it.
If the soul is what makes our life possible, the Art of Memory is what makes a good life possible; for there is no knowledge without memory, no wisdom without knowledge and no happiness without wisdom.