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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.



  1. Leftists throughout history have lacked a sense of humor, a sense of what it means to be human. They are driven by hatred, not intellectual curiosity or generosity of spirit, but rather an abiding need to be correct, to tell others how to live their lives. At the point of a sword, if need be (and it most often is).

    Art requires at least an attempt to understand and translate the human experience. This is anathema to leftists and always has been.

    May 23, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      I’m afraid I will have to differ; humans are more complex than that.

      May 23, 2018
      • I do generalize a bit here, of course, but I’m talking macro not micro. However, having once been a dedicated leftist I may be unintentionally exaggerating out of incredulity that I could ever believe what I believed.

        May 23, 2018
    • Never mind that those on the Left say that very same thing about those on the Right.

      May 23, 2018
  2. William Underhill, Barbarian 1st Class #

    “Ancilliary Trappings” – this strikes me as the *perfect* title for a spoof.

    May 23, 2018
    • I did NOT say that my posts aren’t…. snarky.

      May 23, 2018
      • In that regard some snark was certainly earned. I walled that book when I learned what an “ancillary” was. Disgusting torture pr0nz, is what that is.

        Totally Hugo-ready. Torture and genderism are “in” this year. Back to being a “do not read” list.

        May 23, 2018
        • Christopher M. Chupik #

          Yeah, but it’s awesome because pronouns and tea! /sarc

          May 23, 2018
        • Draven #

          Yes, because the correct term, ‘slave’, would have looked much worse in her social circle.

          May 26, 2018
  3. c4c

    May 23, 2018

    They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
    Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: “It’s striking, but is it Art ?”
    The stone was dropped at the quarry-side and the idle derrick swung,
    While each man talked of the aims of Art, and each in an alien tongue.

    (see the link for the rest of Kipling’s poem)

    Does it move me? Does it speak to my heart? Am I wiser or happier for having heard/read/seen it? Would I love to carry it home to hang on my wall? Do I want a way to capture the moment and the performance so I can savor them over and over again? Then it’s art.

    May 23, 2018
  5. Zsuzsa #

    I’m not sure that Shakespeare would be the darling of the left. I suspect he’d mouth all the right platitudes, but I also suspect he’d be too smart to alienate half his potential audience by including the leftist sucker punches in his work.

    May 23, 2018
  6. Clayton W. #

    I’ve always used the definition that art evokes emotion and maybe thought. Without that it is simply craft. Wonder at a landscape, Joy of children playing, satisfaction and pride of overcoming a great hurdle. I never understood ‘Modern Art’ or preachy books, as they leave me cold and without emotion. RAH used fiction to teach some freed slaves to be human in a story, to me because that is the best way to teach all of human emotion and the response to it.

    Shakespeare’s genius was to tell a story that still still evokes emotion and thought in us some 450 years later. If you have to explain what the artist meant, then the artist has failed (I don’t mean explaining references that are no longer current, but the basic meaning).

    My opinion and I will never be an acclaimed critic. Just an engineer trying to understand the other monkeys in this cage. 🙂

    May 23, 2018
  7. Luke #

    One of my fondest memories of high school was getting kicked out of Art class.

    The teacher started the semester by informing us that the definition of art was “anything that provokes an emotional reaction”.
    My career as an aspiring artiste didn’t even last a full week, but from his reaction to my very first project I achieved the platonic ideal in one go.

    May 23, 2018
    • *offers paw for a low-five*

      May 23, 2018
  8. Matthew #


    May 23, 2018
  9. 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.

    I go back and forth on this. And have yet to truly make up my mind. Initially when I read Jon Del Arroz’s blog entry on this topic I just shook my head. But a few days on I do think he has a point, to a point. I mean, in the eyes of the left Orson Scott Card is never just the guy who wrote Ender’s Game, he’s the evil hatey mchater homophobe in a way that (say) China Mieville is never the cultist and fetishist of a mass murderer. (Trotsky in Mieville’s case.) Hollywood will never come knocking on Card’s door again in any future I can see, and Mieville has one adaptation for the BBC in production and I’d bet money there will be more coming. This is the world we live in.

    Having said that, I just cannot see myself recommending a book, movie, video game or what have you solely based upon the politics of the creator or the politics expressed in the particular medium. I guess I could keep silent about it, but if asked point blank whether or not I liked it…sorry, but I’d express my opinion. Conscience would dictate my response, without the obfuscations those on the left makes about having no idea if such and such a work is any good, but that it is definitely “important.” (And, yes, I’ve such things in GoodReads reviews.)

    May 23, 2018
  10. I consider art to be such as broad topic with such fuzzy boundaries that I generally don’t care to try to patrol them. I will, if pressed, defend art I consider good or that I like, but that’s about as far as I go.

    May 23, 2018
  11. Luke #

    In fairness, he did not advocate recommending works based on the politics of the author.
    He advocated resisting the divide and conquer tactic that causes right-leaning movements to form circular firing squads.

    I think he goes a tich too far, in that valid criticism is a good thing that drives improvement.
    But with respect to the pressure to denounce the wrongthinker holding badthoughts, I think he’s spot on.
    As an illustrative example:
    Vox Day’s fantasy series is quite good, featuring a great setting, interesting characters, and looming threats without ever being predictable or derivative, but it does have a few issues with chronology. (Valid)
    Is completely different than:
    Vox Day is an bad man, writing bad stories to seduce innocents to badwrongfun, and I cast him into the outer darkness! (Invalid)

    May 23, 2018
    • Luke #

      That was supposed to be a reply to Lumpenprole.

      May 23, 2018
      • No prob. 🙂

        I’d have to go back and look,but I THOUGHT he said basically to never criticize anyone to your right. And I can’t really go there. But, then again, I’m on the sidelines and have not had to endure the crap he has. Perhaps my perspective would change in those circumstances.

        And it is funny you should mention Vox Day’s series. I started Throne of Bones and honestly couldn’t make it twenty pages into it. Some of the clunkiest exposition and most artificial dialog I think I’ve ever encountered. I still have it on my Kindle and may give it another go at some point, we shall see. But maybe not. And I say that as somebody who truly hopes his publishing venture takes off and really goes places. I think he’s on to something good with Castalia House.

        May 23, 2018
        • Terry Sanders #

          Sarah recently reminded us of the guy in REVOLT IN 2100 who wanted to persuade his friend that words had more power than you might think. So he said some things about the guy’s parents and what they did to each other. Rather graphic things.

          The friend went berzerk. And once they were separated, the guy apologized–and pointed out that all he’d said was “You are the legitimate product of a sexual union between two people who were lawfully married.”

          Vox seems to have taken that to heart. He *loves* to say horrendously inflammatory things that, when carefully parsed, end up meaning something fairly obvious and only somewhat controversial. Then he watches the fireworks. It’s part of what he refers to as rhetoric.

          It leaks over into his other stuff, sometimes. He may well have said exactly what you remember–in some larger discussion where it would become obvious he *meant* “no circular firing squads.” IF you held your nose and read the whole thing. Which isn’t always worth it.

          Which is why I stopped spending time there. Fascinating stuff, sometimes; but what you have to wade through to get it all…

          May 24, 2018
          • Except that a lot can’t be parsed. And it’s despicable.

            May 24, 2018
  12. gstrayerdesign #

    I see the generational divide in movies – I find (at 44) Animal House unfunny in the extreme, and frankly never understood my peers who thought it the finest comedy about college ever made. On the other hand, PCU stands out as biting satire of the leftist slant of early-90s college campus groups.

    The divide is real, and positive. If it were not, if Animal House was indeed the pinnacle of college comedy, it would suggest we hadn’t moved past the specific point in time which the movie parodies.

    May 23, 2018
    • Brett Baker #

      A 45 year old, I get Animal House. A lot of what’s funny though isn’t really college specific; it would work for anyone 16-25 say. Think how people still watch The Three Stooges, That’s the thing that makes Animal House still funny.
      PCU is hilarious.

      May 23, 2018
  13. “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.'”

    I once aspired to be a photographer, did a one year foundation course in Art & Design, and two years of a Photography & Film Studies degree, only to have the course leader use a variant of that quote to invalidate my second year portfolio. I couldn’t afford to retake the second year.

    Several years later I heard that the faculty had had a big row over what happened, as my second year work was better than that submitted by some of the third year students. Oh how I laughed.

    May 23, 2018
  14. I see art as being just a normal human function, a consequence of how our minds work.We abstract things and manipulate the symbols as if they were the things abstracted. When we use a formal symbology we call it mathematics or science,when we use an informal, improvised symbology we call it art.

    Not all humans make art that they can sell, but all humans make art. We can’t help it. When we put things on a shelf in a particular order because we like the way it looks, that’s art. When we put garlic in mashed potatoes because it tastes better that way, that’s art. When we are driving and make nonsense noises to accompany the sound of the wind and the tires because that is how we feel, it’s art.

    Art just comes out of us, like purrs come out of cats. Some people do it well enough, and with sufficient discipline,that other people really like it and are willing to trade the fruit of their labors for it. We call those people “artists” and subdivide them into musicians and painters and novelists and such.

    May 23, 2018
  15. 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.


    *sighs, wipes eyes*

    You somehow think that learning art is somehow different from every other human pursuit? Yeah, I can catch on to many artistic techniques faster than non-artists—because I made most of my mistakes years ago. And like Miss Marple, while I may not have encountered a particular situation before, it usually reminds me of one…

    May 23, 2018
  16. The idea of art as social critique makes me so angry that I had to step back from commenting yesterday. When my son had cancer, the hospital had an extraordinary art therapist. I’ll admit that I started by thinking the idea was totally nonsensical, but she changed me and she changed the patients. I really came to understand that art is about emotion, and that she was about changing the emotions involved in the experience of life-threatening illness for yourself as a seven-year old, or as the sibling or the parent. Even if all we did was decide that the hospital wasn’t the worst place in the world to be. And that the mechanism for changing emotion was things present in the physical world, such as clay or paint or words and the act of creating with them.

    So my personal definition of art would include lots of what is above but I would also say that art has to lift you up. It might be for a minute or an hour or ten years. It might only lift up people in a certain time frame. And tears can be uplifting.

    But no ugliness — whatever that is. Because true ugliness is about dragging you down emotionally. Maybe.

    (Mind you, art is about emotion but the converse is not true. Emotion is not art! And there are more ways to provoke emotion than through art.)

    May 24, 2018

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