Sunday, 13 March 2011

Art and us

Back in the early months of doing this blog, I wrote a piece about art. Having reread it, cringed at the multiple grammatical errors, its startling brevity and ill-formed ideas, I decided it was time for an update. This is not, however, a rant about Modern Art, although I’m still not exactly comfortable with much of the art produced by Post-modernism. In fact this is not even about art in the narrow sense of visual art. This is about all art, about how we interact with it and about how in effects us.

The definition of art has been much disputed. It is a debate about which there will never be a consensus, because art is different for everyone. To the artist, art is all about expressing oneself, to the consumers of art, art is all about how the work effects us. As a consumer I believe that art relies on an emotional connection being forged between the art and me. I want art to induce an emotional response in me. Art is successful if it makes me happy, of makes me sad, or makes my pity the subject, of makes me hate the antagonist. As a creator, I want to show someone, something about the world. I want to make a statement about the way we live, the way we interact with each other and the world around us, about life, death, war, love. Art is an expression of life. Creating art involves giving away a little bit of yourself. We pour heart and soul into the things we create; we reveal a little bit more about who we are by the art we create.

That is not to say, however, that art is simply an expression of an opinion. Art is not an answer to a question. Art should not tell, or even show, its consumers what the artist believes, or what the artist wants the consumer to believe, in a way that presents it as irrefutable fact,. That is the role of propaganda. And while propaganda can be art, art is not propaganda. Art provides questions. It is, quite literally, food for thought. A consumer should take from a piece of art, not answers, but questions. It should provide him with a new way of looking at the world, a different perspective, a dilemma. The best pieces of art present a conflict, a spectrum of ideas, none of which are wrong or right, but all of which are engaging and fascinating.

Because art is riddled with conflict, and because good art wraps those conflicts up in itself, art requires analysis and critique. Not only is critique unendingly helpful for a budding writer, it is also an integral part of how art should be consumed. Of course we do not have to go digging; good art should be accessible and interesting on the surface, as well as having a lot more depth. We can choose to interact with art passively, allowing our unconscious brains make the connections which create emotional responses, or we can actively study the art and try to look deeper at the themes and motifs, appreciate what the artist is trying to say and, to go a little deeper, how he is saying it. This is the fascinating thing about art. The thing that means we keep coming back to it. Why works of art continue to be incredibly popular, long after their time.

When we analyse and critique art, we study what the art is saying to us, how we interpret what is being said and how that interacts with is. We interact with it. Not the artist, but the art, itself. We bring a little of ourselves to the table when we study a work of art, usually a little more that we anticipated. There’s no right or wrong in literary criticism, because art interacts with each person differently, and each person interacts with art differently, so one work of art is different depending on who is studying it.

For an artist, this is scary stuff. When we create, we specifically intend a certain reaction from what we create. We want people to think certain things upon consuming that work of art. So when people begin to find things in our work that we didn’t even realise we’d put in there, that we’d never intended to be in there, we realise that art is not inextricably linked to the artist. Once we have created a piece of work and released it into the world, we cannot dictate what it means to people anymore. Art evolves and changed, it is out of the control of the artist.

This is why works of art outlive their artist, by thousands of years, in some case. Each new generation looks at art through new eyes, with different prejudices, different ideas and different assumptions. The artist and what he intended no longer matter, especially when the artist is long dead. His work survives him, and it is by his work that is he is remembered. The art keeps changing, keeps evolving. It is renewed and given new meanings with every different person who studied it. And yet the art remains the same. The words, the shapes, the colour, the sounds, don’t change. The things that make up the art remain constant, but what they mean changes.

This is even more poignant when we consider art that is performed. Concertos, plays and song exist on paper, but to truly appreciate them, they have to be performed. This requires the input of directors, conductors, actors, musicians and audience. Each of these bring something new to the table, they bring their own interpretation of the piece into their own delivery. They change it to reflect themselves. Art evolves and changes with the context in which it is put.

Art is incredibly useful for historians. By studying the art of a different culture, we can gain an insight into what that culture valued and believed. Greek Tragedy tells us what Greeks expected from their art. Roman attempts to copy from Greek art, tells us the awe in which they held Greece, the changes they make show us what they did not appreciate of Greek culture. We can also look at what subsequent cultures made of art from their past. We can look at what survives and what doesn’t. More plays of Euripides survive than of Sophocles and Aeschylus combined, yet Euripides was far less successful that either in his own day. That tells us far more about the people who went about preserving these works than about the original recipients. We can learn what subsequent cultures thought of art by studying what they preserved and what they did not. We can also learn a lot about our own culture by looking not just at what’s popular, but what isn’t.

We do not just affect art. Our interpretations and analysis of art does not leave us unblemished. Art affects us. Art makes us think, it makes us feel. It changes us. Art makes us think about something new, something different. Art makes us consider the world in new light; it makes us consider ourselves in a new light. The scary thing about art is that, whenever we expose ourselves to it, we allow it in, we drop our guard and we let it change us. We let it alter our perception of the world, and we let it cast a light into ourselves.

But that’s not always a bad thing. Art inspires. Art moves us to produce it, ourselves. Art makes us think about the world in a way we never have done before. It forces us to explore different paths, both into the world and into us. Art gets our creative energies sizzling with new possibilities and new angles into a part of life, a part of us, that we’ve not explored before. Art inspires us to create more art, to pour a little more of ourselves out onto the canvas.

Every single person sees art differently. Art is individual. Each person brings something different to the table, and takes away something different. Whether as a creator or a consumer or both, we all gain something and give something away through art. Our experience grows, art grows. We change and art changes with us, or does art change, and we change with it? Probably a little bit of both, because art is a barometer and a counterpoint to culture. What is popular is what we interact with most, so that is what changes us the most. Art is democratic. But then what is popular changes because someone creates something new that people prefer to what is old, and there’s always a few who refuse to be drawn by what is popular. Art is individual.

The definition of art depends on who you are and how you perceive it, so trying for a definition is pointless. Art is as diverse and as varied as people. Despite this there are some things that remain constant; we are all affected by art and well all affect art. We are all drawn by art, and we are all drawn to create art. Art is an integral part of everyone’s lives. We cannot ignore it and we cannot stop it. We can only enjoy it and hope that it doesn’t change us in ways we don’t want it to.

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