One dictionary definition of art describes it as “the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words”.
You can’t argue with that, of course, but it’s a faintly lacklustre description of what seems to me a magical process. (By magical, I don’t mean anything supernatural. Nature herself is plenty deep enough for me.) So I sat down, contemplated and came up with words to finish a sentence beginning Art is …
Art is …
celebration empathy example acknowledgment clarification preservation representation remembrance focus transformation symbolism vision refuge escape relief rescue vision affirmation assertion critique play consolation exorcism purging purification journey confession exploration adventure creation mystery completion record analysis synthesis experiment therapy weapon touchstone composition meeting bridge mirror reflection sharing contribution warning recommendation conversation spur signpost rallying-cry prophesy manifesto subversion provocation illumination healer argument questioning collaboration catalyst explanation unique
Great art can be all of these things. No wonder creative people are prepared to go through agonies to produce something worthwhile. But following your own inner promptings while keeping your eye on the subject and your ear tuned to the expectations of an audience is a juggling act which requires psychological stamina and deep determination.
A big ask.
But artists aren’t superhuman – very often their expressive ability is rooted in misfortune and injustice, their human frailty the source of strength. The struggle against mute power, says philosophical novelist Milan Kundera, is the struggle of a theatre group that has attacked an army. This is an almost comic version of the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword.
But it’s also a heroic image. Art embodies the hope that we aren’t helpless – something can be done.
My previous post, featuring an unbelieving Philip Larkin reflecting on religion to draw fresh conclusions, suggests that cultures can merge to create something new. A paradox – art is nothing if not original but grows best when nourished by tradition. Someone commented that today’s European churches were often built on the sites of ancient temples and I replied that many were dedicated to gods of healing – perhaps our new temples are the medical centres, sources of endless antibiotics.
As to our spiritual needs – answers to big questions like Who am I? – we have modern-gothic malls to bestow the dubious blessings of consumer identity. I shop, therefore I am?
But there’s trouble in paradise. Shop till you drop becomes Shop till you drop the climate in a hole it can’t clamber out of … and this, I like to think, is where art appears at the top of the hill like the cavalry to the rescue. Or is it the Commanches?
Hang on, our movie seems to have jumped forward a few reels … let’s wind back a bit!
Ha, look, that’s me in a walk-on role! I play the part of a free-thinker who has a tendency to get himself lost. Being in love with words doesn’t help – chasing fine phrases down ridiculous rabbit-holes butters no parsnips, as nobody said to anyone ever. I never know what I want to do until I’ve done it and consequently am the world’s worst procrastinator … or else a close second to this chap!
To see AA Milne’s poem about the poor fellow, click on https://davekingsbury.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/procrastination/
Where was I? All over the shop, as usual, and whenever shop-assistants start to hover I tell them Just browsing … you too, huh? Hmm, going into shops without buying anything could be the new agitprop – “political propaganda promulgated chiefly in literature, drama, music, or art” – but would anybody notice? I suppose you’d have to combine it with requests for impossible objects – gold-plated cycle-clips in honour of Philip Larkin, perhaps?
By the way, Larkin has form when it comes to supplanting religion with art:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
Larkin’s tone is ironic but the beauty of the final image suggests a serious intention. It is open-ended, inviting the reader in to wonder … or wander! The poem steers clear of religion’s didacticism and enters a more democratic artistic space. I am reminded of the campaign to bring pure drinking water to the world’s poor and its unforgettable images:
In trying to create my own artistic space, I’m encouraged by novelist Richard Ford’s words:
I’ve always tried to abide by EM Forster’s famous dictum … that … fictional characters should possess “the incalculability of life”. To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and make generalisations about as the people we actually meet every day … I should add, as a counterweight to Forster, that I have also taken to heart Robert Frost’s advice meant specifically for writers: that what we do when we write represents the last of our childhood, and we may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly.
I’m drawn to this because I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. Does he mean, be mature but don’t forget to have fun? Is he saying, go for realism but leave room for fantasy? Maybe the message is that rules are there to be broken – there’s no progress without contraries, says William Blake.
But are Ford’s two principles really opposed? I suspect that a childlike point of view – immune to cliché, where the merely childish are wholly susceptible to it – would appreciate ” the incalculability of life”. When once we start to reduce the “variegated and vivid” and content ourselves with stereotype, we lose our appetite for life. This is where all the trouble starts …
I’m well aware that the artist in me is wary of making generalisations, where my inner preacher can’t get enough of them. A friend of mine once said I had a “shopping-trolley mind” by which he meant that I pull ideas off the shelves at random like a lucky winner in a supermarket sweep. You may have more ingredients than anyone else, he said, but they may not add up to a successful meal.
Ah well, time to empty this particular shopping bag and see what I can serve up in Part Two … maybe a tip or two on turning a million and one ideas into something tasty and satisfying. Just don’t expect me to have a shopping list.
And in defence of my somewhat round-the-houses approach, I’ll end with some curiously encouraging words from writer George Saunders:
Intention does not make good art.