Art, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Which is a nice way of saying it’s whatever you want it to be. But I don’t believe that. Although I don’t have an objective perspective on art (nobody does), I believe there is such a thing as good and bad creative work.
But maybe that’s asking too much — for us to label art “good” or “bad.” And that’s fine, I guess. But what is not okay is calling something “art” when it’s not. When it’s something else.
My friend Stephen Proctor pointed this out to me recently (quoting Mako Fujimura, I think). The difference between art and entertainment is a subtle, but important one:
Entertainment gives you a predictable pleasure… Art leads to transformation.
If that’s true, then I’ve got a problem with a lot of what we call “art.” Because it’s not changing us. At best, it’s inebriating us to the pain of the world. Which is not the point.
Art is supposed to transforms us — here’s how:
- It surprises us.
- It wounds us.
- It changes us.
Entertainment makes us feel good. It doesn’t surprise us. It meets our expectations. And that’s why we like it: it coddles us. But the problem with entertainment is it leaves us unchanged. And we desperately need to change.
Art, on the other hand, transforms us. How does it do that? It beautifully wounds us — breaks our hearts, causes us to cry, and shows us our own inadequacies. Art forces us to make a choice. It does exactly what we don’t expect.
And that’s how art changes us.
So the question, dear artist, is this: Are you creating predictable work that doesn’t surprise? That doesn’t wound? That ultimately doesn’t change anything? What, then, are you creating?
It may be propaganda. It may be advertising. It may even be entertainment. But it’s probably not art.
What do you think? Share in the comments.
*Photo credit: Mark Heard (Creative Commons)