Art is About Elegant Form: An Interview with Albert Murray by Wynton Marsalis

Going to be (re-)publishing a piece by @Greg_Thomas soon, introducing the new Library of America edition of cultural critic Albert Murray’s collected essays & memoirs, ahead of a podcast we’re going to record on Murray, who I’m just getting to learn about.

I’m finding a lot to admire in Murray’s aesthetic philosophy. Here’s a sample:

… Underneath all art is the reenactment or the repetition of the basic survival techniques of a given group of people in a given place, time, and circumstance. When they go over that, when they practice it, we call that ritual. You see? From ritual you get a mind-set which helps you to continue. You build up a pattern which adds up to what you’re conscious of, which adds up to your perception of reality. Now, this is so important to people that some cultures have that reenactment, or that repetition, or that rehearsal—it’s like rehearsing the survival technology, the food-getting or life-saving technology. It’s so important that they have it supervised! When you supervise it very carefully it becomes a religion. You see? But they also reenact it by playing around with it—and that is when we are on our way to art. Because play, although it may be supervised too, leaves a lot of space there. It really has tolerance; it really has a little play in the repetition of what you’re doing. Although you have a referee, or judge, or umpire—in certain games—and certain games have rules that are supervised and some have not, there is always room for individual options as to how you would repeat this. And it’s that type of playing around with the options that leads us to art. And it’s out of that particular basic human activity that art comes.

“Art as a survival technology”—as essential—and as a form of play—sounds spot on to me.

More from the same piece here:

Greg and I will be talking about Murray’s overall life, work, and legacy, and we will likely also focus on Murray’s essays “The Omni-Americans” and “The Hero and the Blues,” which you can find in the Library of America edition (and other editions), likely in your local library—if you want to read along and get in on the follow-up!


Thanks for sharing a taste of Albert Murray’s aesthetic philosophy, Marco! I look forward to our deeper dive into the mind and work of a 20th century genius.

For those intrigued by Murray’s ideas, and his relationship with the most influential jazz artist of his generation, Wynton Marsalis, here’s a presentation by Marsalis on Murray given last November at the 92 St. Y in Manhattan. The virtuosic solo flugelhorn performance at the end, Marsalis revealed privately, was played to mimic Murray’s rapid fire delivery of ideas in person.

In less than 20 minutes, you’ll get a good sense of Murray’s style as a thinker, friend, and mentor:



“Art is really about security. The enemy is entropy. The enemy is formlessness. Art is about form. Art is about elegant form.… People who confuse art with attack forget that what art is mainly concerned about is with form, and adequate form, and the artist is the first to know when a form is no longer as serviceable as it was… And that’s what innovation is about. …It’s not to get rid of something simply to be getting rid of it, or to turn something around. It’s to continue something that is indispensable.” --Albert Murray

“…I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.” --Jean-Francois Martel

These statements appear to be in opposition at first glance (security and form versus inherent strangeness). But perhaps the “something that is indispensable” is the need to destroy “prevailing ideologies” in order to constantly have a fresh “response to the radical mystery of existence”?


Hello TJ, Marco, Greg,

Marco - thanks for inviting me into this conversation.

I don’t see any opposition between the two passages TJ quoted, the one from Murray and the one from (I think) my conversation with Matt Cardin. The difference lies in how the problem of art is approached in each instance. From what I understand, Murray is talking about the function of aesthetic objects within a human community. He sees the artist as the one who plays with existing aesthetic structures (stories, rituals, etc.) in order to give them forms that are more adequate to new circumstances. He calls that experimental level of form-construction “art”. Art, for him, defines the process by which humans “play” with existing structures (ritual, religion, ideology) in order to construct new and better forms. And I think that’s exactly right.

My own perspective assumes, however, that art goes all the way down. The formation of the original ritual was already art, as was the formation of the religion. In each instance, there is a reaction to the mystery of existence. Humans see the mystery and then develop rituals to cope with it. When the rituals are effective, they form a conceptual apparatus in which people can forget the mystery. The conceptual apparatus functions like a “dome”–think of the coded celestial vault–that orients members of a group in the chaos of the world, affording them a measure of predictability and stability. The perennial danger is that the dome eventually come to replace the world, in that people will begin to feel that the real is reducible to the symbols inscribed upon the dome. This is how art, i.e. imaginal expression for which ambiguity and ambivalence are inevitable given the nature of the real, turns into artifice at the functional level. The problem with artifice is that it negates the infinite complexity of the real, and thereby endangers the group by giving it a false sense of security and finality. New art is required to bring us back to the real and to give us new forms enabling us to deal with what is in truth an ever-changing situation and a perennial confrontation with the unknowable.


Beautifully put. And I might add that we don’t escape this even when the symbols on our dome are “ultra-rational” mathematical formulas either.

(Yes, I did quote you from your Cardin interview - and look forward to further engaging with your ideas when Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice arrives in my mailbox. Usually, I am to be found at the intersection of history and social theory, but have recently been taking first steps toward a fuller appreciation of thought on art.)


Jean-Francois, I’m tempted to ask what you mean by the “mystery of existence” and whether you think there’s some primordial experience or encounter with this that engenders art. Only tempted, however, since it might be best to let the mystery be…mysterious.

There does seem to be a difference in intent, though, between art that seeks in some way to soften, mitigate, or cope with reality (which is very necessary!) and art which seeks to confront and infuse an oblivious reality with the vitality of primal mystery.

It’s a bit like the difference, perhaps, between early Coltrane and late. I’d be very curious how Albert Murray saw an album like Interstellar Space, which totally shreds any notion of an enclosing metaphysical dome or communal space, and even stretches what most would think of as “elegant form,” but which nonetheless is aesthetically awesome (technically, sublime).


Just finished Reclaiming Art… today. The following adjectives may not be worth much coming from a novice, but I render them anyway: brilliant, deep, timely - as fully “astonishing” a work of art itself as those the author distinguishes from the artifices of current politics.

Gems like this suffuse the whole book:
“But unfortunately the guardedness that is so essential to our mental well-being in this media-saturated world also contributes to the rampant apathy that is frosting over the globe like the beginnings of an unprecedented psychic ice age” (p. 25)

“In addition to being a turning point in military history, then, the bomb is an event in the history of art. It is the ultimate work of didactic artifice, the American promise of a Greatest Show on Earth perversely fulfilled.” (p. 137)
I could go on but won’t; I imagine most participants here are way ahead of me, but whoever hasn’t read this one should!

I got the sense from what I read that art does not seek to soften or mitigate primal mystery, rather it is artifice that pulls “singular” meanings out of the unknowable to allay fears. (And artifice is not necessarily “wrong”; it just falls short of true art in that sense.)

@jjf.martel, Thank you, sir, for a thought-provoking and enjoyable experience! If I misread anything in my comments above, let me know.


Thank you for these kind words, @patanswer. So glad you enjoyed the book.

Your summary of the argument is right on, IMO. I think that a work of art affects us to the extent that it exceeds its pragmatic purposes (its intent) in order to occasion an aesthetic experience which, as such, cannot be disentangled from a sense of mystery. My argument is that what we call aesthetic pleasure is precisely a response to the immanent and contingent nature of the real. The formal argument for art in RA rests upon a more fundamental and radical ontological claim about the nature of reality.

So, in response to @madrush, I would say that the “art instinct” does come from a recognition in the individual of the radical mysteriousness of life. What you do with that instinct will vary. Some people make art to fight the instinct–to affirm against it some stable form that endures and is exempted from the real’s radical contingency. These artists can even create great works of art in this way. But my argument is that their work will be great to the extent that it betrays their intent in order to reaffirm the very truth that they would like to rub out of existence. If we take Jung’s ideas regarding the inscrutable archetypes that shape the real seriously, then it is not hard to imagine how a work of art merely incorporates its creator’s intent as one of its components. It is infinitely more complex (to the extent that it is good).