Here's chapter two - -- "ART DEFINED IN ONE WORD" -- and that word is
"rareness" -- which, in the next chapter, the author will immediately
distinguish from "rarity" -- i.e. "rareness is an emotion which is felt, not a
state which exists". So.... as the author explains, breathing may be a very
common activity, but "it is rare according to the rareness of its being
brought to our attention and specifically perceived" (or "brought to the
attention of each one of us" -- as Michael and Mando would prefer to say it)
He doesn't say so -- but the "rareness" of which Shaw speaks is not a
response to that which is known to be rare (like the excitement I feel when
discovering a compact disc that is out-of-print and valuable) -- but it's a
perceived rareness in the thing itself (as when I first discover a performance
of "If I were a bell" that really rings mine)
And what feels rare about this chapter --- is Shaw's interest in neurology --
and his rather quaint depiction of Man as a bundle of nerves.("several
billion or more")
The problem, of course, is connecting those billions of nerves with the
billions of feelings that we have.
Perhaps it's not so difficult when discussing the pain one feels when bitten
on the finger by a mis-behaving kitten -- but it's quite difficult when
considering how one might feel in response to a novel or a Beethoven
Following the fashions of the 20th C. , Shaw pretends to be all scientific
about this stuff -- complete with graphs and charts which I have mercifully
spared you -- but he is making the point that whatever response one has to art
is made with the entire nervous system -- and if he fails to connect that
nervous system with responses to complex stimuli like symphonies, paintings,
and novels -- contemporary neurology hasn't gotten very far either, has it ?
Shaw is also making the point that art serves to stimulate and soothe the
various parts of the nervous system -- wherever that stimulation or soothing
is required - while also making the point that this is something which humans
Again -- since he wants to be all scientific about it -- he wants us to
consider the stimulation of each and every nerve -- which is a bit absurd.
But idea that each of us has feelings -- some of which -- at any one moment --
need either stimulation or soothing -- that seems more reasonable -- and might
begin to address how I feel in a happy moment of seeing, reading, or
Of course -- I might be feeling that way while chatting with a friend or
looking at a sunset -- so Shaw's definition of "art" is going to allow a lot
of stuff to be "art" at any one moment.
But that's not such an unusual thought, is it ? Hasn't William told us many
times that art can be anything? it's just that William will then follow that
up with the assertion that something only becomes art as it is institutionally
recognized as such -- while Shaw has no interest in institutions. A brightly
colored beetle might serve as art for a 4-year-old ---- a painting by
Velasquez might serve as art for William -- and Shaw will not assert that the
one is more like art than the other.
Nor, I speculate, will Shaw assert that one bundle of human nerves is better
than another -- with which I would strongly disagree. (although I'm not sure
about this since I've haven't finished reading the book)
ART DEFINED IN ONE WORD
MAN-to picture him as realistically and fundamentally as possible-is an
agglomeration of several billion (or more) nerves which receive and register
sensations from people and things in the outside world.
These nerves, in the process of receiving these sensations, expend varying
proportions of their capacity to receive, and enter into a state akin to
In other words, they tire,. much as muscles do-but with one extremely
significant difference. Muscle-fatigue we can usually check or control,
because we ourselves decide what muscles we shall exercise and for how long.
Nerve fatigue, on the other hand, we usually can not check or control because
it is determined from outside of us-because the world bombards us with the
particular sensations it happens to have on hand without regard to whether the
particular nerves in our system that are associated to those particular
sensations have or have not already had more stimulation than they can
This creates a situation which is vastly more important than we realize-namely
that man, in every hour, day or year of his existence is forever in a certain
condition of unbalance, disharmony, exasperation. His nerves, instead of
having tired more or less concurrently and together, have tired, on the
contrary, with very considerable lack of concurrence; and, in fact, may range
through the whole scale from utter exhaustion to explosive freshness. At one
extreme he may have nerves so battered and sore that their least excitation
arouses a veritable paroxysm of pain, and at the other extreme, nerves so
famished and hungry for action that they forbid him the very repose which his
exhausted nerves so urgently demand.
Obviously man's attempts so to guide his steps that those sensations likely to
bruise and irritate his sore and jaded nerves shall be blessedly absent, and
yet give his starved and eager nerves the vivifying stimulus and activity they
crave, can only very imperfectly succeed.
So that each one of us, as the days go by, and in response to the particular
assortment of sensations to which we happen usually to be exposed, develops a
personal and individual pattern of nerve unbalance -in which certain nerves or
groups of nerves are continuously and chronically over-stimulated, and certain
other nerves or groups of nerves are continuously and chronically
This universal condition, as I have already said, is much more important than
But in itself-for reasons which I shall discuss later (note #1) it is not
sufficient to produce the thing we call Art.
The fact which brings Art into existence is the fact that in addition to
individual nerve-patterns we have group nerve-patterns.
Families, for example, have a certain general family-nature, and are subjected
to sensations having a certain family-similarity. Consequently we have
family-nerve-patterns. In like manner, cities have city-patterns; classes,
class-patterns; races, race-patterns; America, an America-pattern; Europe, a
Europe-pattern; the Orient, an Orient-pattern. And so on-for any group you may
select-until finally we observe that all men on Earth, having a certain
general earth-nature, and being subjected to sensations having a certain
general earth-similarity, develop an all-inclusive pattern, the Earth-Pattern.
>From this the conclusion (note #2) seems obvious.
Art on this Earth-on this particular microcosm of the universe-defines itself
as that which tends to feed the nerve-hungers of men of the Earth-pattern and
tends to rest the nerve fatigues of men of the Earth- pattern.
Is there any one quality or thing which performs both these functions; which
simultaneously feeds nerve-hungers and rests nerve fatigues? I believe there
is-namely sensations rarely experienced on Earth, Earth-Rareness. We conclude,
therefore, that Art is Earth-Rareness. (note # 3) Or temporarily disregarding
problems beyond the Earth, we say, more briefly, that Art is Rareness. That,
then, is my one-word definition of Art, Rareness.
As corollaries, I assert that there can be no Art without Rareness; that there
is nothing outside of Rareness which is necessary or even helpful to Art; that
there is nothing smaller than Rareness-or inside Rareness-which, by itself,
would be sufficient to produce Art; that Rareness is not only the essence of
Art, but also its measure; that Art increases or decreases in the exact degree
that Rareness increases or decreases; that Art coincides with Rareness at
every point, always has coincided with it, and so long as man retains his
present nature, always will coincide with Rareness.(note #4)
The Authors Notes:
(note # 1). This universal condition- namely the existence of individual
patterns of nerves -is not sufficient to create Art by itself, because I
conceive of Art as a shared thing. This point is further amplified in later
pages of the main text and also in the next succeeding note.
(note #2) For those who desire a more elaborated exposition of how this
conclusion is drawn, I submit the following data illustrating more in detail
my concept of the building up of "individual nerve-patterns," through group
nerve-patterns, to the final Earth-nerve-pat- tern or Earth Pattern, as I term
it; and my concept of Earth Art as a "complement" or "resolution" of the Earth
Let us assume first, for convenience of discussion, that man's nervous system,
instead of containing billions of nerves, contains only the nerves, Nerve One,
Nerve Two, Nerve Three, etc., up to and including Nerve Ten. (In this
connection, see also next succeeding note.) The nerve-pattern of any
individual man you choose-Mr. Smith, say-could then be graphically represented
on any given day in Mr. Smith's life, in some manner such as that illustrated
in Figure Ala.
In this figure, the lower horizontal line represents, Mr. Smith's nervous
system, containing the agreed ten nerves. The ten perpendicular lines above
the ten nerves indicate by their relative height, the chronic and habitual
hunger and fatigue relations between those nerves as a result of the
differences in the amounts of stimulation which they receive. The upper
horizontal line represents the "line of neutrality" between hunger and
fatigue. Those nerves whose perpendicular lines extend above the "line of