Writing as Art

During my final semester of college, I’m taking a class called “Vision, Voice, and Practice.” The painting and poetry professors have teamed up to teach it, and it’s offered for either upper division Art or English credit. That’s where the “Vision” (art) and “Voice” (writing) parts come from.

The class has afforded me a wonderful opportunity to study that strange being known as the Art Major. I’ve learned that  these beings are most active at night, understand the term “Class starts at 8:00am” very loosely, and like to talk about symbolism. They’re also deep thinkers, insightful, and caring.

Being in a class with art majors has given me a glimpse into the art world—a world where trinkets arranged in boxes help people think about exploration, and a pile of jumbled words  produces a 3D object.

in-class text coll. treeBeing part of this community has made me think differently about my writing.

In my mind, I’ve always categorized “skill” into three sections: skill, craft, and art. The difference between these three had something to do with practicality and objective beauty. I might be skilled at washing dishes, but the activity isn’t beautiful, and is definitely not an art form.

Craft got a little closer to art, but it was still too practical. The glass-blower creates beautiful bowls that hold liquid, and the wood worker creates sleek tables, chairs, and surfboards. But these things were still practical—they were working pieces, not art pieces.

Art, though—art was the shimmering pinnacle of creativity and beauty. It wasn’t supposed to be practical. It was the standard of perfection that practical people looked to and dreamed of reaching.

I had always thought of writing as part of the craft category. It can be measured definitively by a set of rules and requirements (grammar and style) and becomes better with practice. It’s used practically: to record the minutes of a meeting, persuade the public to vote for a new tax, or warn drivers about the deer that might cross the road. Therefore, writing didn’t qualify as art.

My definitions were wrong.

I won’t attempt to give a definitive, holistic definition of “Art” in this post. That’s book and dissertation material. But I will say that any good definition of Art will not demand physical beauty, and will not exclude practicality.

One of the main purposes of Art is to make us think—to challenge our pre-conceived ideas and broaden our perspectives. Sculptors use clay and photographers use printed images, but they both use them as mediums to convey an idea, or even to produce a practical object.

Writers use words to the same end.

Language as a medium doesn’t depend merely on definitions to convey meaning. It also uses style, sound, restriction, and even visual presentation—the same criteria we use to evaluate art.

By the same token, Art doesn’t exist apart from the practical concepts and struggles of humanity. Artists are trying to work out answers to these questions through their work. There is no such thing as meaningless art, (though some have tried). The end result always includes an idea, a concept.

secret garden, 2The other essential part of Art is active creativity. A rose is beautiful, even “sublime,” but it is not human art. This is where “Practice” comes into the class title. We are actively practicing our disciplines, not floating around in the philosophy of Formland, but grounded in the work we make. Our assignments are both individual and collaborative, but in each one, we’re creating something.

Through Practicing the collaboration of Vision and Voice, I have learned to not limit my own work, but to see it as Art.

All the pictures above are projects done in this class. If you’re interested, you can check out the class blog here for more of them.

The Art of Self-Knowledge

I’m my own worse critic. I don’t mean to say that I see every flaw in my writing; I mean I only see the flaws in my writing. The difference may be slight, but it is like the difference between deciding to sit down and practice the piano, and deciding to push the piano out of a 10 story building, light all of the copies of music on fire, and yell “to hell with it!”

So when Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a class of high school students surfaced in my news feed this past week, I felt convicted:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He reminds me that the practice of any art is more like exploration and less like decoration–it is about the soul of the artist. My worse criticism of my own writing stems from this confusion. Instead of asking myself, “What does this blog, poem, or essay say about my soul?” I ask whether it compares well to the writing of my peers or my favorite authors.

The same principle applies to the way I consume art. Instead of worrying whether I like the right movies or books, I could inquire about how my response to particular stories reveals some new aspect of my soul.

In an interview from 1968, Ray Bradbury describes human beings as “tension collecting animals.” In other words, we sometimes suppress violence, grief, and joy because those impulses are not always appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. These tensions, however, accumulate over time and need to be exercised.

Often, we don’t know what tensions we’ve accumulated. Sometimes, we just feel feelings without a clear understanding of where they’ve come from or why we’re feeling them. So, as Bradbury says, the artist will come along and help us discover what they are and allow us to exercise them. Too often, the cathartic experience is a neglected avenue for self-knowledge.

Whether creating or consuming art, we should learn to posture ourselves for inquiry. We don’t always know what tensions we need to exercise on a particular day and so we need to go exploring. Because of my own propensity to care more about art as decoration instead of exploration, I’ve set up some guidelines to follow:

1. Follow Vonnegut’s advice: “…starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with art. Instead, allow yourself the space to get to know one painting, sculpture, poem, or song. Inquire about your experience by asking “what tensions am I feeling? What tensions is the artist representing?”

3. Pay attention to your preferences and start there. If you’re wondering what counts as good art, then you’re thinking about this backwards. If you do not find Van Gogh intellectually or emotionally engaging, then don’t try to force yourself to like him just because everyone else does. Exploring art isn’t a competition, and it doesn’t require a refined taste. Like the things you like and ask yourself “why do I like this?” Only when you start reflecting on your own experience, will you eventually begin to see what makes an artist like Van Gogh great.

4. Be aware of how much art you are consuming and how much you are creating. Inevitably, you’ll always consume more art than you create. It takes several years to create a movie, but only an hour and half to watch it. If, however, you find that you haven’t created anything in a long time (paintings, poems, music, photography etc.), then consider making time for your own art. Creating art often has the effect of not only revealing something new about your soul to yourself, but of helping you to better appreciate good art when you see it.

5. Finally, follow Vonnegut’s last instruction: don’t show your art to anyone because “you will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded…You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.” For a host of obviously bad reasons, this is a hard rule to follow. I like it when people like the things I create, and without fail, this desire eclipses the real rewards of making art. Art as self-expression is the act of exploration. Who knows what knew thing I’ll discover about myself or about the world through the crappy poem I wrote today? My job is only to be interested; the rest is not my business.

From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Three weeks ago I wrote about Christians having to live with TV and pop culture that is frankly yucky. I said that even though pop culture is often disgusting and rotten, Christians who are moving from death to life in Christ have to engage with it because 1. there is some good in it still and 2. they do not really have a choice not to have some level of interaction with it. In a discussion on Facebook, someone pointed out that I focused too much on tolerating evil than on moving toward good. Here I want to properly emphasize why Christians should learn to deal with stuff that is yucky and gross: the point is not merely to prolong our existence but to endure long enough to introduce what is truly good, free of taint and impurity. With that, I will turn once again to the video game Fallout 3. Continue reading From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Non-Christian Art: Three Christian stances and why to care

Sometimes, Christians make bad art. Perhaps its because they don’t have talent or training, perhaps its because they get confused about what good art means. That doesn’t perplex me. There are lots of reasons to fail in art, and enough Christians succeed to show that faith isn’t a disqualifier. But, assuming it’s good for the Christian soul to interact with beauty, what does the Christian do with beautiful art created by non-Christians? In general, I have always consumed it without a second thought. Dish out Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” in front of me, and pass me another helping of Asimov. Continue reading Non-Christian Art: Three Christian stances and why to care

“Christian” Hip-Hop: What Does That Even Mean?

Last week, we talked a bit about the importance of Christian hip-hop/rap as a genre, and then provided numerous examples of theologically-influenced lyrics from within the genre. Hopefully you’ve taken a few minutes to check some of those artists out. What follows today is a discussion of a debate that has long existed within the genre, but has recently taken a front seat. Continue reading “Christian” Hip-Hop: What Does That Even Mean?

When Pop Art Gets Critical: Andy Warhol

I used to dismiss Andy Warhol as “shallow”–that is, until I dug a little deeper and discovered the underlying coherence of his work. Warhol’s two most famous pieces, the Marilyns and the Campbell’s Soup Cans, highlight the persistent theme of his body of work: the dehumanizing effects of media.  He didn’t target pundits; his critique was that mechanistic production and proliferation of an image erodes its meaning and value.  In other words, if you see something enough times it doesn’t matter or mean anything to you anymore.

The Marilyns are the first and most famous of Warhol’s Celebrity series.  They are silk screened prints on canvases, the same image but different colors each time.  Warhol chose silk screening because it was mechanistic rather than personal.  These screens could create hundreds of nearly identical prints if maintained well, but he was more interested in the machine-like process than the mass of products it could produce.  He allowed the silkscreens degrade with use, meaning that each successive image was slightly more garbled than the one before, culminating in blocks of color that can barely be recognized as a face.  The result?  A mechanism that, when repeated, resulted in eventual loss of meaning.  That’s the basic process, but that doesn’t explain the subject matter.

Why celebrities?  Same idea: images of celebrities are so pervasive that they destroy our notion of the celebrity as a person; the human is replaced by a photo increasingly detached from the reality of their humanness, reflecting instead a projected persona.  Why Marylin?  Because she was destroyed by the machine.  Warhol developed the process before he chose the subject; when asked why he used Marylin, he answered that he “got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face” from the news of her recent suicide.  The images he created only recapped what had happened in her life: meaning was destroyed by mechanistic production.  Other celebrities in the series include Elvis Presley, Jackie Onassis, Michael Jackson, and Mao Tse-Tung, among others.

The Campbell’s Soup Cans are another approach to the same issue.  He painted a vast series of cans, each a little different from any other, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly.  As he made them he paid close attention to their differences, and if you were to examine each can individually, you would see the subtleties.  But you see dozens of cans at once, and however intricate each one might be, all you see is a bunch of identical cans.  Warhol repeated this process with other prolific objects, like dollar bills and Coca-Cola bottles.  Asked why he painted such repetitiously mundane material, he answered  “I just paint things I always thought were beautiful . . . things you use every day and never think about.” (quoted in Victor Bockirs’ book The Life and Death of Andy Warhol)  One image, or one object can be interesting, unique, and beautiful.  Hundreds can only be a stack of something, whether it’s a stack of cans or a stack of pretty pictures.

Was Warhol’s critique limited to the culture’s treatment of pictures?  I doubt it.  ‘Image’ can be understood in many ways; broadly defined, celebrities, archetypes, heroes and leaders are all images.   The fact that he applied the mechanistic process to pictures is interesting, but I think the real impact lies in his selection of subjects.  Mao Tse-Tung, Marylin Monroe, soup cans, coke bottles, car wrecks.  What do these things have in common?  That we know, and don’t really care.  That we have seen them too often to actually perceive them anymore; that proliferation has annihilated meaning.

Warhol aimed to draw attention to the mechanism by imitating and parodying it.  He called his studio ‘The Factory’.  He set up assembly lines.  He insisted that “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”  The very absurdity of embracing dehumanization was his social critique.  The tragedy is that no one noticed.

Think about it.  Where have you seen Warhol’s art?  Have you seen the originals?  Probably not.  Most likely you’ve seen posters, T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, calendars, neckties, purses, you name it, mechanically emblazoned with the images Andy created.  This time, there is no human pretending to be a machine- it’s actually pure machinery.  This time, the images do not critique mechanization- they have been subsumed by it.

Twenty | 25 June 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is the Doni Tondi by Michaelangelo.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Twenty | 11 June 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Twenty | 4 June 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is Peace – The Burial at Sea by JMW Turner.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Twenty | 28 May 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is Penelope Unravelling Her Web by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.