Art: Oooh, Uh-huh, or Aha!
Oooh is compelling, may be extreme and intense, thrilling or shocking, but it doesn’t stay with you. It gets old fast and then a newer and more intense oooh is demanded. So oooh is addictive, temporarily distracts but cannot satisfy. Oooh is the product of the romantic worship of the merely emotional—of the natural, of the individual, of impulse, of feeling dissociated from rational thought and tradition, of spontaneity, of originality, of extremes. Devotion to oooh makes a Jackson Pollack the most expensive painting ever sold. A naked Hamlet is all oooh. Its name is sensationalism.Uh-huh:
Uh-huh is safe, reassuring, and obvious, even when it is demanding and difficult. It is certain, firm, widely shared. But uh-huh becomes personally irrelevant. It is devoted to the already accepted and does not reach paradox and mystery, where the self actually lives. The uh-huh made T.S. Eliot think Dryden a greater poet than Shelley because Dryden’s beliefs were truer. Uh-huh conveys dogma. It may be the product of the Enlightenment, of worship of the rational, the scientific, the tested, the obvious. Or it may be the product of a religious tradition or of the political right, or the political left, or of any shared hobby horse. It may be truth or it may be propaganda, but it soothes without moving.
Our age (perhaps every age) labors under both these erroneous goals of art—often in the same work. Individualism and impulse have become dogma. People exalted the impulsive gestures of a Jackson Pollack till abstract expression became an ism. The formerly oooh becomes uh-huh.
Aristotle said that virtue is a golden mean that lies between the two extremes of excess and deficiency. The oooh is excess worship of impulse and nature and emotional abandon; the uh-huh is excess worship of familiarity and safety and mental control. At the same time, the oooh is deficiency of universal rational significance and the uh-huh is deficiency of personal emotional relevance.
Aha! is a golden mean, though it cannot be achieved by mere balance of reason and impulse, as if it were itself a quantity. It is original, but not because the artist has pursued originality, for the pursuit of originality decays into mere differentness. It is true, but not because the artist has packaged received truth, for the packaging of received truth decays into mere platitude.
Aha! is achieved in a visionary incarnation of the universally true in the authentic here-and-now particular. It appears in the space between—between the artist and the made object, between the object and the audience, between meaning and form. It effects (in Martin Buber’s terms) an I/Thou moment. It rings true, and not only our emotion or our mind tells us so but our whole self—body, heart, mind, and spirit—as one.
Why should we settle for less?
And now, here, look: My title is oooh. My paragraphs are uh-huh. Where is Aha!?