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Art is Not Just a Matter of Preference

Sunday, 15. September 2013 23:44

When I was an undergraduate, I had an English professor who said that the accomplished student of literature should be able to read a poem and separate the quality of the work and whether or not it was personally appealing. The implications, of course, were that not all poetry is created equal and that liking something has nothing to do with whether it is good or not.

This has not been a popular position in the postmodern world, where all work is pretty much equal. And although postmodernism is, according to some, dead, it left a legacy. Daniel C. Dennett has said, “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

And as elevated as the egalitarianism of postmodernism sounds, most of us who work in the arts know that it simply isn’t true. There is good acting and bad acting, good directing and not-so-good directing, good writing and bad writing. There are, in fact, qualitative differences in the performing arts. And other arts are no different. Given that, the problem is articulating what constitutes good art and less good art, and that, in turn, requires that we be able to distinguish art from non-art.

Although many have attempted this, novelist Leo Tolstoy is one of the few who not only distinguished art from non-art, but articulated the conditions which determine the qualitative levels of art. Tolstoy collected his views in a book called What is Art? It is not an easy read. Fortunately, Maria Popova has summarized and presented Tolstoy’s ideas in a recent posting to Brain Pickings. Essentially, Tolstoy said that art is a union between the artist and viewer or receiver of the art that allows the receiver to feel and experience the feelings and experiences that the artist put into the work. Additionally, this union works not only in one era, but across time and cultures. He says that what distinguishes real art is the presence of this infectiousness.

He goes on to say that the stronger the infection, the better the art, and that the degree of quality is dependent on three conditions:

  1. The individuality of the feeling being transmitted. (More is better.)
  2. The clarity of the expression. (Clearer is better.)
  3. And the sincerity of the artist. (Sincere is better.) This is the most important condition.

Sincerity in Tolstoy’s view is what gives art it’s power and is the source of its infectiousness: “The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”

Whether or not we fully agree with Tolstoy, or even understand him, most of us instinctively know that all art is not created equal. There is excellent work and there is crap, and there are all sorts of levels in between. Most of us know that. It’s time that we quit pretending that it’s all about individual expression and acknowledge that Tolstoy has a point. Art is not just a matter of preference.

Category:Aesthetics, Quality | Comments (1) | Autor:

Bukowski v. Beethoven

Sunday, 30. June 2013 23:07

In a recent Brain Pickings post, “So You Want to be a Writer: Bukowski Debunks the ‘Tortured Genius’ Myth of Creativity,” Maria Popova quotes a poem by Charles Bukowski which contains the following lines:

unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

The poem says a great number of things that ring true, particularly about the need to get out what is inside. And I have talked before about how for most artists, it’s not a question of “want to” but rather a situation of “have to.” With all that I have no argument.

However, the implication of these particular words seems to be that writing should just flow out of the author and that thinking hard about it, or considering the work difficult, or having to search for the right words, or rewriting means that you should abandon writing all together. I cannot help but find this a rather narrow and naïve view of writing, and, by extrapolation of making art in general. This seems to say that if you have difficulty getting what is in your head, heart and gut onto the canvas, or paper, or into whatever your materials are, you should do something else.

Admittedly, sometimes the limitation is that the artist is not yet ready. He/she may not know enough yet about any number of things, may not have developed enough expertise to do the subject matter justice, simply may not be mature enough as an artist or a human being to deal with the topic properly.

However, to suggest that the work must flow perfect and unhindered from the artist in a somewhat mystical fashion is to deny the experience of many creative people. Consider Beethoven for example. According to Billy Joel, in an interview with Andrew Goldman in the New York Times, “[When you hear] Beethoven you hear the struggle in it. Look at his manuscripts, and there’s reams of scratched-out music that he hated. He stops and he starts. I love that about Beethoven, his humanity shows in his music.” Joel compares Mozart: “Mozart pisses me off because he’s like a naturally gifted athlete, you listen to Mozart and you go: ‘Of course. It all came easy to him….’ Mozart was almost inhuman, unhuman.” Whether or not we agree with Joel on Mozart, most of us would consider Beethoven a significant artist despite his creative struggles and rewriting.

Even though Bukowski seems to disagree, most believe that art is not easy, and that there are many sources for the difficulties. On the other hand, most of us would agree with Bukowski when he says:

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

Make what you are compelled to make; art will happen.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0) | Autor:

Stepping Into the Unknown

Monday, 24. June 2013 0:37

A recent Brain Pickings article by Maria Popova quotes a number of writers, including Rainer Maria Rilke, John Keats, Debbie Millman, and Anaïs Nin who encourage their readers to embrace the unknown, with Nin proclaiming “the vital importance of allowing for not-knowing in order to truly know the world in its fullest dimension, of using the unknown as a gateway to deeper presence and greater awareness.”

Whether stepping into the unknown is enriching or not, for many artists it is a necessary part of creativity. It’s an area we don’t much discuss. We often think about artists as working from an idea, from a preconception, of from a plan. And certainly some artists do that, but others don’t. Others just take the materials that they have and start fitting the pieces together, start playing, start improvising, and art happens. This is not to say that these artists are working blindly. Rather they are using their materials according to their training and aesthetic to make pieces that satisfy in some way; then they show them to the world, believing that someone will grasp some part of what is going on.

For example, Juri Koll had an opportunity to watch Herb Alpert (musician, painter, sculptor) work. Writing for Huffington Post Arts & Culture, Koll said “The beauty in watching him do it was the fact of allowing things to play out as the materials, surfaces and motions dictate. Nothing preconceived. ‘When I paint or sculpt,’ he [Alpert] says, ‘I don’t have anything in mind. I don’t have a goal in mind other than form. I’m looking for that form that touches me and when I find it I stop.’”

Alpert summarizes his approach on his web site: “Painting and sculpture is very much like music, in the sense that I’m looking for composition, I’m looking for harmony, I’m looking for transpositions. I want the canvas to swing.” His sculptures swing as well;” The Los Angeles Times says they are “like visual jazz.”

Many artists adopt a methodology similar to Alpert’s, although perhaps not so consciously. For some there is planning, and a preconceived notion. For instance, dancers work out the demands of the choreographer. But the choreographers work from a score—the product of a completely different discipline, which provides almost no guidance. Actors work at the suggestions of the director. And the directors work from a script, the equivalent to the choreographer’s score, but the interpretation of that script is unknown territory.

Even the actor, who we normally think of as doing directed work, has to face the unknown. He/she is given the words to say and perhaps some direction as to how to say them, but the real work of the actor, creating a complete human being in front of a camera or on the stage is really a step into the void. The script and the director provide hints, but the movement from self to character requires moving into uncharted space, into areas that are not only unknown but frightening.

No less frightening is sitting down at a computer to fill a blank page with words or create imagery, or leaning over a canvas, beginning a sculpture. And each shift in materials, subject matter, or methodology represents a step into the new and unfamiliar. But we all have to do it. If we are to be really creative and really make art, we must not “grasp for the security of our comfort zones, the affirmation of our areas of expertise, the assurance of our familiar patterns.” We must take a deep breath and step into the unknown.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0) | Autor: