The topic about the meaning of art arose recently in a casual conversation. It is often an enjoyable topic though I try to restrain myself from it if I don’t feel the conversation partner would relate in any way. Yes, I do bring it up if someone snobbishly starts talking about art and I happen to disagree; but that’s not what I enjoy. I seek the finer, smaller, simpler, friendlier conversations with people who seem to enjoy in some way or another a certain sort of consuming beauty in art. So this specific conversation made me remember previous conversations, email exchanges, and a specific search for quotes I had made years ago, to ultimately decide to write this. So bear with me, if you know me, as I again talk a little about part of what art means to me and how it opposes (this is where some start disagreeing) to the view that says everything can be art.
I know art can be defined in many ways, the debate about it is not new. In the end, it is the beholder who ends up acknowledging it as such. However, there are so many creative outlets, skilled pieces of work, inspired writing, captivating images created, all of which constitute great things to behold; but there are a few even among these that have a something else that makes them transcendent through time and that speak clearly to people throughout generations. It is that which I want to pin down and separate from other creative endeavors maybe just to honor those lasting accomplishments that effectively recreate certain aspects of truth to the perceptive human eye. Considering it is just a given concept, people have the right to make it whatever they want, but if there can be something more specific that we have no choice but to call art in order to refer to it, I choose to go for that specific.
This time, however, I don’t want to ramble about it, though I know I already am. I started this post wanting to base it on that very small compilation of quotes I had gathered and that I simply enjoy reading. These quotes mostly take poetry as a parting point to describe some elements of art—or if they don’t intend to, I use them to do so. I think good poetry, in its simplicity, has the main elements of art relatively identifiable. I could find authors who have said something like this but I don’t feel like searching and I am bad quoting by memory or remembering names. These quotes I do have here came along after a not so very extensive search of such quotes that could support the ideas about art that I was trying to express in these emails and/or conversations I was having (quite) some time ago.
So one of those things I wanted to support with respected quotes is that art and melodrama are not at all necessarily the same, and I wouldn’t disagree so harshly if someone said they had little to do with each other. It is important to acknowledge that art can and does use melodrama and even sentimentalism; yet it does so rising above it, controlling it and utilizing it as an element to carve itself with. Still, they are not the same thing, and I found one quote that nicely expresses something similar.
“The job of the poet is to render the world—to see it and report it without loss, without perversion. No poet ever talks about feelings. Only sentimental people do.”— Mark Van Doren
I remember reading an about.com article that touched upon the subject. It said, and I loosely paraphrase parting from only memories of having read it quite some time ago: expressing your feelings itself is not art, it’s good and you can do it, but don’t inflict the world with it in the name of art. If you are not going to do it right; remember you can always just keep it to yourself. This might not be valid quoting, but I really enjoyed reading that.
Now, going back to Van Doren’s quote. Art within his idea could talk about feelings in the extent that feelings are part of the world to render, see, and report, without loss or perversion. However, the simple rant of feelings—even the creative ones—are often not what I would like to call art. I agree that sometimes the simple expression of feelings can still present creativity and skill even if by the personal definitions here presented it falls beneath art. And that is good too. If those were not acceptable forms of craft, there wouldn’t be rock ballads that have become so dear to many (not to me); nor would there be soap operas which many are willing to embrace as entertainment. The main issue here is to honor those things that go beyond, that are more relevant because they “render the world” unrestrained from the haze of emotion.
Related to what Van Doren said, there are many other quotes that go deeper into what I want to express about the subject. For me, real art expresses or showcases or materializes truth. Here are a few:
“Poetry is the utterance of deep and heart-felt truth—the true poet is very near the oracle.”
— Edwin Hubbel Chapin
“The poem… is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see – it is, rather, a light by which we may see – and what we see is life. “
— Robert Penn Warren
“[A poem] begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
— Robert Frost
“The poet is the priest of the invisible.”
— Wallace Stevens
…and more related to art in general, without confining it to poetry:
“Everything in creation has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like the princess in the fairy tale ’til its appropriate liberator comes to set it free. “
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
All this doesn’t mean that books have to use realism to portray truth; that books, for example like Naked Lunch, are not art because they are quite “out there” or take too many liberties with their apparent worded pornography, fantasy, or plots that are little concerned on narrative coherence. (That’s the first book that came to mind for some reason. I don’t mention it to state I consider it art or that I don’t; I don’t care too much about that discussion. I am pretty acceptant of those who consider it art and could probably be too of those who don’t.) Even such books—using absurdity, fantasy, and even incoherence—do portray or try to portray a truth or set of truths, a simple trait or traits of the universe. Inasmuch as they are successful in accomplishing that—to leave those traits be a tangible object comprised in those words or those colors or sounds or the fit of these—they are successful in becoming art; lasting, admirable, re-experience-able art.
One way I like to talk about it is relating it to science. Science, following its method, could never get to explain many truths in the whole realm of reality. And even those it can, to our senses, they mean little: Science does not recreate truth for human perception, we don’t get to sense it or see it as truth; only an area of our brain grasps it as knowledge; we read the data that describes a certain aspect of reality and after questioning it and further developing it in science, we faithfully accept it as a truth. Art, however, goes where science cannot due to its restrictions and has a power of communication that is often more effective than pure data. It’s simple and concise enough to just leave that piece of truth there for you to experience rather than simply accept as a bit of knowledge. I think the quotes already presented express this quite well; yet, Freud makes a more explicit relation between these two particular terms:
“[P]oets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science. “
— Sigmund Freud
Dylan Thomas also expresses something about this nicely:
“A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”
— Dylan Thomas
(Part 2 here. Though, if you already read this much and actually do want to go on, you might as well read the comments posted here before doing so which present some good points and which give sense to the title of the second part)