It’s Human, But Is It Art?
As most of you know I have no claims to being an artist engaging in art. What I do might be art — who am I to judge? — but art is something you can strive for not something you can volitionally do.
An artist is what you are, a craft is what you do. Since I can’t garantee I’m an artist — it seems to me an artist wouldn’t have made every possible mistake and have had to learn things twice, uphill, in snow, both ways — I try to improve my craft, and study constantly to be the best craftswoman I can be.
So, what is art, precisely?
I know what they told me it was in college, in a literature degree — so applying mostly to writing — and it was supposed to be “social critique” and “changing the world.”
And this is why I sing that song “When I think back on all the cr*p I learned in [high]school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”
Because that definition is bug nuts.
Take Shakespeare (take a few couplets every night and call me in the morning. Won’t hurt you, really) for instance. Was he doing “social critique” and “changing the world?”
Snort. Giggle. Pull the other one, it plays jingle bells. Sure, if I were teaching a college course and I were required to use that definition and teach to that definition, I’d find stuff in Shakespeare to support that. Perhaps Kate’s feistiness in Taming of the Shrew, or the way that he makes Othello human.
But let’s drop pretenses, shall we? Shakespeare was not concerned about the rights of women or the rights of minorities. He was a man of his time, and thought a woman under good regulation would be subjected to her husband. He was also smart enough to realize there was a give and take (and he was married to a woman whose reputation as a shrew has come through the ages, as well. He wrote some magnificent shrews and termagants. Maybe he liked them.) And if he thought of “minorities” at all and even conceded “not all are worse than us” he was vastly ahead of his time, but it wouldn’t occur to him to fight for anyone’s rights.
Elizabethans had a very mechanistic and “pre-ordained” view of the world. The idea of “fighting to change society” is part of our vocabulary, not theirs.
Also, let’s not speak in mealy mouthed adoration. I yield to no one in my admiration of Shakespeare’s work or the fact that he could talk across centuries and languages to the little girl I once was — if that’s not art, what is? — but he was the tame poet of the Tudors, telling lies on their behalf and gilding their rather scabrous history with all his craft, just as much a servitor of the regime as any writer or poet in the DDR or the USSR, and just as subservient to the reigning ethos as a writer supporting Marxism for NYC publishing.
If Shakespeare were alive now, he’d likely be the feted darling of the progressive elites, and we’d have to endure him at every talk show, and every gala, spouting the approved words and the newest progressive cause.
And the worst part? We would endure him. And we might have to tune in to hear him mock our beliefs, because here’s the thing: whatever opinions he was spouting the man was an artist, and he made people come to life, and he made what he wrote interesting.
The left of my field, for the most part, has as expensive and exquisite an education as I had. Which means they were taught the same stupid definition of art. And since the whole “critique of society” and changing the world are Marxist concepts as is — for the neo Marxists, at least — the idea that there is an arrow of history and it flies unerringly to the target of progressivism, it’s easy for them to decide that art is that which supports them politically.
Unfortunately most conservatives and libertarians also grew up with neo-Marxist education, so we’re now starting to see them produce — mostly very bad. Most such is very bad — incredibly slanted and political message fiction. And we’re seeing an opinion emerge that you can’t criticize anyone on the right, because you have to like “art” that supports your opinion.
Or, of course, maybe it’s a human failing and not the fault of Marxism. Or maybe it’s a thing of our time. We have produced a massively human-unfriendly world, in which everything is utilitarian and must serve a purpose. Perhaps it’s insanity induced by the species as a whole, for the first time ever, having more than we need to survive. Maybe it’s part of a search for meaning or something.
All I know is that I don’t care. Expressing this or that political opinion doesn’t make a work art, much less art I should like.
Sure, there’s explicitly political work I’ll like: satire or articles, or whatever. I love P. J. O’Rourke’s work. And there’s an art to it. But it’s not “novel type art” and I would not expect P.J, say, to speak to generations yet unborn. Unless the world is very weird and the future is exactly like the present. In fact, I know my kids and other young people miss a lot of the satire I find biting, because they grew up in a different world, and what annoys them is not what annoyed me in Europe in the seventies.
And in novels?
I tend not to like the hard left novels. Not because of their political views, but because I have serious issues with the worldbuilding itself and the unremitting hatred of humanity that makes every character vile.
But mostly? I tend not to like novels that push the message so hard, and bend the world around the message so much that there’s no humanity left.
Yes, I know I’ve written a couple of novels that could be considered “message.” The thing is that’s not what I wrote them as. To me it was “There’s this character and I must tell his story.” In fact it’s become a joke with my publisher who used to ask me, when I pitched a novel “Yes, but what does it mean?” She doesn’t do that anymore. She just says, “I suppose you’ll know what it means when it’s done?” Which is how my mind works.
I usually write to chew over a problem, not to present an opinion already arrived at.
Of course, this is not about me. I, at best, aspire to be a decent craftswoman who amuses people. I’d be shocked (nigh onto death, except I’ll already be dead) if I’m still read 100 years after my death. Or if anyone, including my descendants, remembers me.
This is about what is “art.”
Art to me is that which is so deeply human, and speaks to humanity so deeply that it can transcend politics, styles, and even the personality of the author.
Art is something created by a British Elizabethan (or Victorian), or an American late Victorian like Heinlein, speaking across the centuries, even in translation, to a little girl in Portugal, in a culture far more different than anyone who hasn’t crossed cultures realizes.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is art.
Art doesn’t need explanations, or study, or training wheels such as “having a character just like me” or any of those ancillary trappings. Sure, speaking the language of those in power in its time might give it the boost it needs to get well known enough it has the chance to speak to generations yet unborn. But it’s not necessary. Nor is it necessary to speak the language of the nascent counterculture. Nor does it make it special if it does.
Art is not message. It is that which transcends message and exists, in the world but independent of it, shining, unimpaired by either mud or praise.
It often — like Shakespeare — starts as being popular. As being fun. As something that makes the apprentices throw their greasy cloaks in the air, and the gentry munch on oranges while enjoying it.
It’s not work. It’s not preaching. It’s not “morally uplifting.” Sermons can be very good, but I don’t know any of them that are enjoyed across centuries by people of other beliefs. There is art in sermons, but sermons are not art.
Art is alive and messy and fun. There might be messages in it, but the art isn’t a message. And the message you find might not be what the author intended. It almost certainly won’t be what your grandchildren will find. But if it’s complex and human enough, your grandchildren will find something.
Because that’s what art is. Art is human. With all the imperfections and all the glory. It doesn’t need a justification for existing, and having a justification doesn’t make it good. Or bad. Or anything.
I’m not going to tell you that you’ll produce art if you have the right opinions. I’m not going to tell you that you won’t produce art if you have the left opinions. I’m saying a lot of what’s being feted as art is a pot of message. And that I oppose.
But I’m not in the business of being a gate keeper, or anointing what is art or what isn’t. I’m in the business of writing as well as I can, and learning every day how to write better.
And so should you be.