Art at the End of its Tether

Man’s Range for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts

by Morse Peckham
Chilton Books, 339 pp., $6.95

Etonnez moi“—the famous words which Diaghilev is said to have spoken to the young Cocteau conveniently sum up the theory of art proposed in this book. Stripped of its involvement with transactionist psychology and translated from a rather polysyllabic terminology into simple language, Professor Peckham’s hypothesis amounts to the assertion that are is an institution to which we turn when we want to feel a shock of surprise. We feel this want because we sense that it is good for us once in a while to receive a healthy jolt. Otherwise we would so easily get stuck in a rut and could no longer adapt to the new demands life is apt to make on us. The biological function of art, in other words, is that of a rehearsal, a training in mental gymnastics which increases our tolerance for the unexpected. In the author’s words: “There must…be some human activity which serves to break up orientations…to prepare the individual to observe what the orientation tells him is irrelevant, but what very well may be highly relevant” (p. xi); “…art is the reinforcement of the capacity to endure disorientation so that a real and significant problem may emerge” (p. 314).

It is clear from the whole tenor of the book that it was his encounter with contemporary avant-garde art that gave the author this shock of disorientation that set him in search of a new and significant problem. To accommodate it, he had indeed to break up the aesthetic orientations on which he had been brought up. “The artist,” he came to conclude, “is the challenger; his role requires him to create unpredicted situations” (p. 76). As an example of what he calls “the inarticulate insight into exactly this way of defining art,” he quotes John Cage’s notorious concert-item entitled “3 1/2,” which consists of so many minutes of non-performance at the piano. Any decision that governs the artist’s choice of the surprises he wishes to offer the public, the author infers, “is determined by the values, both implicit and explicit, of his cultural environment. If he is a New York artist of the 1960s, those values tell him that, to be a successful artist, he must make a great innovative leap; if he can, he must start a whole new artistic fashion. If that is beyond him, he must make as much of a discontinuity as he can in the current fashion” (p. 262).

It has often happened that the innovations of contemporary artists have helped critics and historians to look at the past with fresh eyes and to discover new values in previously neglected styles. True, these rediscoveries were often accompanied by certain distortions of the historical truth, but even when these were corrected and adjusted by subsequent generations enough remained to justify such an exercise in projection. I was therefore very ready to go along with the author of this book and to test with him how far his generalizations …

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Letters

Art or Behavior November 17, 1966