Over the past several months I have attended a number of arts’ events. There were a couple of poetry readings, some painting exhibitions, that sort of thing. The one thing all these events had in common was the type of artist they attracted. I suppose you would call them enthusiastic amateurs. The poetry comprised of the, “I saw a butterfly. It reminded me of mother. I cried,” sort of thing. The visual arts tended to be mostly pretty pictures of bucolic scenes copied from photographs. The word ‘charming’ comes to mind.
Charming. Perhaps. But is that art?
Yes, that’s a tricky question and one we have been toying with since, I suspect, people decorated the walls of their caves.
One of the things these poets and artists had in common was a desire to ‘express themselves.’ I don’t doubt their sincerity, but I do question the artistic merit of some of their results. There was something so ephemeral about these offerings. The poems and paintings, many of them, were positively wispy. Surely one of the key components of art is its ability to resonate? To endure?
The work the true artist produces isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s dark, challenging, and even disturbing. Very rarely is it charming.
For the artist, the work is all. Crafting the perfect line or expressing an idea on canvas is what matters. The artist knows that a lot of people won’t get what they’re trying to do. The work is what matters, though, not the acclaim.
This was what I found most unsettling in the events I mentioned. The majority of people were present to be acclaimed, to be told how talented they were. That was what mattered; not the actual work. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed to me.
At one of these events, I had been invited to read my own work. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. My friend who accompanied me was outraged, but to be honest I was relieved. The opening scene of my work in progress, a tale of madness and violence, would have had no place in a charming garden full of charming people reading their charming poems.
My friend Carrie, a painter, spends months on her pictures. She takes me painting with her sometimes and we wrestle with nature. Well, I wrestle. Carrie is a true artist and she thinks nothing of spending three hours just getting the lines of one tree right. There’s no sense of it being an effort for her. Sure, it may take a long time to reach the sort of perfection she craves, but the process is what she loves. I’m much more slapdash with my paints, which probably explains why I’m a writer and not an artist. I take those sort of pains with words and with as much pleasure.
There’s nothing wrong with being a talented amateur. Every professional was one once. Nor is there anything wrong in expecting other people to admire the things one produces. However, I do think there’s a danger in assuming every quick and easy idea that drops from one’s pen or brush is art. With work, it may become so, but it will take time, effort, study, and diligence.
Art can be unsettling. It is provocative. It isn’t safe. That’s what makes it fun.
Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.