Isn't there something incomprehensible, magical, or mystical about art?

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Isn't there something incomprehensible, magical, or mystical about art?

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Q: Isn't there something incomprehensible, magical, or mystical about art?

Art can be subtle, complex, hard to understand, or difficult to explain, but there's nothing literally magical about it and nothing about it which inherently defies analysis. I think the reason some people believe this is that art (good art anyway) often excites the emotions, and people think (or feel) that emotions are incomprehensible, magical, or beyond explaining, and because of this error and the relationship between art and emotion, they conclude that art is therefore similarly incomprehensible, magical, etc. Both the logic of this linkage and the premise of emotions being magical or incomprehensible are erroneous.

Another flawed idea is that rational analysis and emotions are opposites and that indulging in one must come at the expense of the other. They fear that "peering behind the curtain" might destroy the potential for emotional enjoyment In practical terms, I don't find that knowing more about how a painting, novel, movie, or symphony was made (which constitutes a decrease in the amount of "mystery" surrounding it) diminishes my ability to appreciate it. On the contrary, the more I know about the best works the more I appreciate them.

If art is beyond comprehension then how can anyone know that this is so? Not only is that a logical impossibility, but this sounds like the assertion of the existence of some kind of mystical mystery qualities that only the truly enlightened can see. Such assertions have been a standard trick of charlatans for thousands of years. They leave the victim of the charlatan in a position of intellectual dependence, and ready to have his pockets picked. They also have the "convenient" property of being impermeable to question and criticism or even of explanation. It's a "magical" justification for imposing intellectual dependency upon the victim of bad ideas, and a license to lie for the "experts" who can just make up any idea they wish and it is magically "true" somehow.

Another argument I often encounter is the idea that if a factual description of something cannot directly substitute for a direct experience of it then the factual description can't be true. That's not the appropriate standard for determining the truth of such descriptions. It's such an obvious error it's almost hard to explain it coherently, but I run into it rather regularly.

I'm not saying that art doesn't have or can't have subtle and wonderful qualities, or even ones that it is hard to explain in perfect detail, but that's a different thing from claiming that it has some magical quality that inherently defies understanding.