Art and the Expression of the Human Soul

Alpha Asian was nice enough to invite me to be a guest contributor to his blog. After mulling it over, I thought, what the heck? Alpha had some interesting posts on writing and on the integrity of one’s work. I thought I’d delve deeper into the topic and share some of my own thoughts on creativity and art.

So, how would you define art? What makes one project art and the other just a project? There are various definitions, but for our sake, let’s keep our focus to the readily accessible things the average person would say is art: visual arts, literature, music. A conventional definition is that art is a reflection of society. Artistic works are supposed to tell us something about our lives, to enhance it with beauty, to make us think. It is an expression of human creativity and imagination, its purpose to bring us into harmony or balance with the world around us.

Or, you could take a more cynical approach and define it the way Andy Warhol did when he said, “Art is anything you can get away with.” It’s an amusing statement from Warhol and perhaps somehow very prescient. Maybe Warhol foresaw the strange alliance between art and commerce. Silk screening a Campbell’s soup can or a picture of Marilyn Monroe? A banana? This is “pop art”? He certainly benefited from being part of this avant-garde faction that others elevated and made fashionable.

Writer and social critic Tom Wolfe wrote a fascinating book called “The Painted Word”, a critical take on the art world and the intellectual masturbatory fawning by art critics over abstract art. And I thought it raised a series of interesting questions: is art subjective? Do the rules count? Tom Wolfe seemed to have a disdain for abstract art and the works of Cy Twombley and Jackson Pollack. Are they artists or frauds? Is it all about intellectualizing an idea rather than the tangible work itself? What difference is there between a paint-splattered canvas by an abstract artist and a canvas all splattered upon by some 6 year old kids having fun with paint? Why is one considered art but not the other? But that’s another topic for another day.

So here’s my take on art: I fall on the side of having mastered techniques, the basics of an art form, and exhibiting the mastery in some tangible form. In its highest form and purpose, I think art is a reflection of society. It does tell us something about our lives. With the reader’s indulgence, let me lay the groundwork for backing up my statement. Noted journalist Bill Moyers produced a fascinating PBS series, interviews with Joseph Campbell, a professor of comparative mythology, called The Power of Myth. Campbell’s belief was that mythology was important because it told us how to live our lives. Mythology has its roots in our collective connsciousness; its symbols, its archetypes, are rooted not just in our society’s cultural fabric but in many disparate cultures in this world. In other words, there was a common thread in that each culture’s stories were essentially the same, from Native Americans to tribes in Africa to Asia to Europe. In some of these ancient cultures, Campbell noted, it was the shaman who was the seer, the mystic for the people. The shaman was the one imbued with powers to go out to places that the people could not go and he came back with stories and insights to tell the tribe about the harvest, the coming days. He was the visionary, the healer. Moyers asked, well, who are our modern day shamans then? Campbell replied, they are our poets, writers, artists.

Let me use music as an example, since I know more about this subject than other art forms. Have you ever heard a song that you identified with? Is there a favorite song, band, or recording artist of yours that make you feel something like, “Man, this band knows about my heart ache! They know about the hassles I’ve had with my girlfriend”? When that happens, I think the artist/songwriter/band is holding a mirror up to you and is merely showing you yourself. The songwriter attains an artistic level when he/she is able to articulate all the feelings you’ve had but couldn’t express yourself. And when you are presented with the work, there is the shock of self recognition. Or there is something in the song that strikes a universal chord, a certain feeling or mood we all experience. As soon as you hear the lyrics you know exactly what the songwriter is talking about. At its highest levels, I think, that is what art can and should do (at least in the pop-rock music form). It should move the soul. The biggest themes are universal ones: love, death, life. I think a good artist, if he or she is doing their job, is someone who is able to encapsulate a universal truth or feeling about the human condition and lets us experience it. Music is especially powerful in evoking emotions in that it’s a powerful combination of words and music. Good artists are able to evoke that response because they’ve mastered their craft.

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