A Big Question: What is Art?
As writers – creators – we often hear our work referred to as art.
Okay. But what is art? Talk about a big question, right? Which means it’s a kind of boring question. Because when you try to answer it, what comes to mind?
If you’re like me, not much. In fact the question makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable – I actually think it just triggered a cortisol spike of stress – because I want to answer it, but I have no idea where to begin. No, it’s not even that, because a beginning suggests that there is something there to begin with. For me, it’s crickets all the way.
So I turned to my trusty dictionary, which defined art thusly: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”
Sheesh, what does that mean? Talk about the blind leading the blind (sorry dictionary). It’s so, so, so conceptual. Meaning: vague, abstract, and ultimately empty.
How can we make art if we don’t know what art actually is? Do we only recognize it after the fact, and so to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s oft paraphrased quip about porn, “I can’t define art, but I know it when I see it.” But if you can’t define it, how can you create it, except by lucky accident?
And then last week I stumbled on something that began to actually answer the question. I was misting up upon learning that Edward Albee had died (if you haven’t seen Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, do it now - we’ll wait), and the obit I was reading had a quote of his. I read it and felt a thrill through my tears. Because it yanked “art” out of the realm of the ethereal and put it into the realm where it actually lives and breathes and matters.
"All art should be useful," Albee said. "If it's merely decorative, it's a waste of time. You know, if you're going to spend a couple of hours of your life listening to string quartets or being at plays or going to a museum and looking at paintings, something should happen to you. You should be changed."
Exactly! The purpose of art is to change how we see things. And not in general. Largely because there is no general. There’s only the specific. Real art changes how we see specific things. In other words: it shifts something specific in our worldview, giving us new insight that then helps us better navigate our lives. This may sound like an oxymoron but real art is practical. Otherwise, what’s the point?
And so the art of story is in being able to tap into a universal, and then channel it through a very specific person’s very specific internal struggle – so that the reader experiences it too. Stories allow us to see ourselves in the characters we read about; they not only make us feel understood, but help us better understand ourselves. It doesn’t get more practical than that.
Here’s to using your art to change lives, one reader at a time.