I anticipate this blog entry is not going to make me popular.
Therefore, at the outset, let me just say that I personally find a good deal of merit in post-modern trends of inclusivity, of questioning hard set definitions, of blurring and sometimes breaking stringent boundaries. I also absolutely believe that creative thinking, creative expression, and creative activity should be encouraged at e-v-e-r-y p-o-s-s-i-b-l-e juncture. These two things—looking at the world from a different vantage point and engaging that world with some sort of creative response—are the nucleus of transformation.
That said, I find myself in a quandary these days as I encounter responses to the following questions:
1) What is Art?
2) What makes someone an Artist?
I recognize that artists, critics, historians, and philosophers have been trying to parse out answers to these questions for over two millennia (i.e. I’m not going to resolve the debate in this particular entry). What I would like to do is raise a couple of questions, and invite your responses. (This is not a rhetorical invitation. REALLY…give me an earful, people!)
The perspective toward which I am ambivalent at the moment is: “everyone is an artist;” they’ve either forgotten that’s who they are or have been socialized to ignore their artistic genius and must therefore excavate it. In conversation with a number of colleagues, we agree that the central problem really boils down to how you define Art and Artist. I wonder: do the definitions we use to define Art and Artist have some thread of consistency with other creative disciplines?
For example, in the discipline of writing, there are accepted standards regarding components and structure. Nouns and verbs are distinct elements of language. Punctuation clarifies the idea set forth in a sentence; there are rules governing punctuation. And while there are a number of different stylistic preferences, general consensus states that a paragraph consists of one or more sentences that all address a single topic.
Let’s be honest: we recognize when paragraphs sing, and when they fall tremendously flat. Not all paragraphs are created equally! I am confident that we all have encountered writing that adheres to, or breaks away from generally accepted standards and does so with enchanting poise and finesse. In such cases writers pull off excellent writing in part because they possess a very strong grasp of those generally accepted standards. On the other hand, we all have encountered writing executed with the poise and finesse of a belly-flop. In such cases I do wonder whether or not the generally accepted standards were ever learned, let alone embraced.
My point is that we recognize standards for writing, uphold them, evaluate works according to those standards, and apply interpretive paradigms appropriate to the genre/style (i.e. we read poetry differently than novels, or essays, or plays, etc.). If, then, these standards and structures exist for writing, does it not stand to reason that a very similar body of standards, structures, and interpretive paradigms exist for other artistic disciplines? If so, how then can everything or anything be Art? If so, is everyone really an artist? These are my questions, posed to you, our readership. I do hope that you will volley back and contribute to the conversation.
I do not want to be the voice of the 2nd grade art teacher who abruptly tells a kid that they will never be an artist (happened to me! look what she knew). I do not want to pander to any sort of elitism. But I do raise these questions, because I think there is a more meaningful distinction out there, a logic that allows for both the generous encouragement of fledgling creative ideas, and the welcome embrace of time-honored standards established for a reason by respective creative disciplines.
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Jessica Yuan's poem "Fluorescent" appears in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
It took years to arrive and your eyes
became accustomed to light at all hours,