Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Art and writing

To welcome in the new year, I'm going to bore you guys... so be prepared for at least a week of extremely nerdy posts.

Ever since I hopped into Janice Hardy's discussion on writing and art (my link) way back in October, I've been thinking, on and off, about art and writing. Originally this came about from a post on Janet Reid's blog commenting on another post accusing agents of killing *artistic*/literary books 'cause agents are only interested in making money, not art.

Can writing be art? Can art be writing?

Hardy's post touched on so many interesting ideas (so I encourage you to read the original post in its entirety, but first let's look at this:

To me, art is something that transcends. It inspires, captures emotion, causes emotion in others. It makes us think. It's goal is simply to be. (And I understand not everyone will have this same definition)

A painting can do this. So can music. We can look and listen and take something from the experience. But writing? I'm not so sure. We take things away from a story, but a story is different from plain writing. How many read to experience just the beauty of words on a page? Perhaps poetry is writing's art form. It does everything my definition of art does. It's not so much about telling a greater tale, but about evoking emotion.

One thing I want to clarify. I do feel that writing itself is an art. My question is more about where books stand and if they were indeed an art form in and of themselves, or a product and thus the commercial application of an artistic skill. 

She also linked another post which was responding to hers. The quick version is:

People write to create images, worlds and stories that never existed until we imagined them. Just because it can only be seen in the mind doesn't mean it isn't art. When I read I feel so strongly for the characters (if it's a good book). Every time I read Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine I rock back and forth with Ella in the end and wait for her to break the curse. I have to catch my breath, I squeal with anticipation and yell at the characters. They confuse me, anger me, make me laugh; I could go one, but I won't.

C.S. Lewis created Narnia and it became so real for me that I thought "what if". Isn't it possible that there are other worlds?

To me it's about making the reader think outside their comfort zone. To ask questions is how we challenge what we think we know and broaden our senses. That is what art is. It can also be a product, but ultimately, isn't it so much more?

So, ultimately, what is art?

Well, I'm going to annoy you by saying there really isn't a set definition of art. Many people have tried to pin it down, but no one agrees, primarily because everyone's creating and critiquing it from different cultures, different times, different needs and different goals. As these things change/evolve, so does the definition of art.

History is written by the winner, right? Well, so is what we view as culturally and morally acceptable. Child-brides anyone? Age of consent? Prostitution? The legalization of certain drugs? Does a murderer have the right to live? How about dictators, cult-leaders, politicians, marketing/sales, war, mining, child-labour, pollution, seal-clubbing, etc? Should McDonalds be allowed to burn half the Amazon rainforest to make cattle ranches for their quarter pounders? How about soft-drink companies leaping into Vietnam to establish their products, not only on the day the war ended, but within the hour?

Our history, our philosophies, our culture, these things colour the words we use and the ideas we exchange and fight for, and since art is also a form of language, how could it be any less convoluted/complex?

What struck me as most interesting about both these passages is that both Hardy and M.E. (the person who responded) suggested that art and emotion are tied together.

Is emotion necessary to consider something 'art'? Is it one of the fundamental characteristics?

This is actually a very Western-central idea. Considering M.E.'s profile picture has a road sign in MPH, I'm assuming he/she is American, and I know Janice Hardy is American.

I'm Canadian, so I can't say I'm any less Western-centric in upbringing, but growing up on the west coast, there is a much higher infusion of Indigenous and Asian art/culture than in the rest of North America, which is primarily influenced by European and, to a lesser degree, African art traditions.

SO, for the sake of keeping within the scope of 'art + commercial products', I think it's logical to stick to Western art. It wouldn't be fair to, say, start talking about Buddhist monuments in SE Asia, Indonesian shadow theatre, Mogollan baskets, Borneo tribal tattoos or Haida totems.

When we talk about writing, we mostly talk about *Western* authors, European and American (I'm including USA & Canada in that word), so I think it's only fair to stick to the same kind of art. Apples to apples, right?

I honestly don't think there's any right or wrong answers here, what I'm most interested in are the different ideas/thoughts/opinions on this subject, the evolution of what art is, was and can be.

So, feel free to disagree, throw in your own examples/etc, but remember we're sticking to Western writing, art, philosophy, etc.

Oh, and one more thing I wanted to be clear about before we start... I'm going to be using the term, 'sell' a lot. By this, I am primarily referring to the idea of convincing someone of the merit/worth of something else.

You can't sell something that is worthless, whether it be an idea or an object. Both parties need to be in agreement about the value of something.

Does that make sense?


  1. art is in the eye of the beholder. There's a new reality tv show that focuses on artists and it pisses me off, because who are they to judge if someone's art is worth anything. Art is different to different people, what one person hates, another could love.

  2. I tend to be leery of such conversations and definitions, partially because I think Margaret Atwood has helped murder Canadian literature. (A bit overkill of a statement, but the point still stands that stuff written to win awards is not the same as things people want to read.) There tends to be a tendency to divide the 'art' issue into a binary doing it for love vs. doing it for money and the ickiness of commercialization and all of that. As you pointed out, if someone buys it, then it's not worthless. And one can, probably, find a buyer for most anything.

  3. @ prerna pickett

    ugh. Yup, I definitely wouldn't like that show... I agree about 'in the eye of the beholder'. I've got the oddest abstract carving from Mexico where, even the salesman bartering with me, couldn't figure out what the heck it was.

    It's affectionately known as, 'the squirrel-parrot', since the salesmen though it was one of those two things :)

    but I love it, the size, the shape, the weight of stone, the smooth and rough edges. It suits me.

    @ alcar

    Yes, it's another nature of Western culture to make things binary, like the division between church & state. MOST of the world does not try as hard as we do to completely remove 'religion' from 'reason', and vice versa. That's one of the primary reasons I wanted to stick with Western art, is because of that marked difference in classification.

    Heh. I think most Canadians have pretty strong feelings, one way or the other, about Margaret Atwood. In my mind, her work is similar to Ayn Rand. Either you're a 'believer' or you're a 'sceptic'.

  4. Why does a tiny, three-letter-word arouse such an interesting array of responses?

    Art is so difficult to place into a neat little box and say, "There, that is art." In years passed, being plump and voluptuous was a sign of fertility and choice-worthy. Nowadays, it's seen as out-of-shape. Things change, perspectives change and so the way art is viewed changes as well.
    Personally, I happen to believe that writing is art. Like an artist who paints, taking the blues, red and yellows, stroking their brush against a blank canvas, creating a beautiful picture or a simplistic aesthetic enjoyment, a writer, takes characters, plots and imagination, weave them together with the wide world of vocabulary and create a beautiful, humorous or tearjerking tale.

  5. @ Angela

    ...I agree... even if the art itself doesn't inspire an emotional response, talking about art usually gets people hot-under-the-collar pretty quick.

    ...and with that description, you have certainly painted quite the artistic image on your own :) Wonderful use of words :)

  6. Yes, very true.. and wonderfully said :)

  7. I'm so far behind here... I'm still trying to figure out if I'm a "writer"...
    BUT... I'm here to say hi to a fellow primate. I am GREEN MONKEY. I see you like dark stuff. I like dark stuff. I see you like cat. I like cat. I see like getting stuck in your head. I like that about you, and me, and all of us that think and write...think and write...

    p.s. I was not bored but I did read most of this post from the bottom up, I have no idea why and I've never done that before.

  8. @ WritingNut

    Yes, Angela speaks/writes? wonderfully :)

    @ Green Monkey

    Another primate! Excellent! I also love the short, Dr. Seuss-ian comment style ;) Dark stuff = good, cat = good, also, making up strange nonsensical words = good :) It's very nice to meet you!

  9. Very true. And you are not nerdy at all. ;)

  10. @ Chantele Sedwick

    oh, just you wait...

  11. This discussion is related to one I've been having with others (as well as myself). I asked if writers would choose to have a commercial success over a book that wins literary awards and achieves status as a classic. The responses were mixed as you might imagine. I, of course, would love both, but I hadn't given myself that option.

    So what is art? Something that provokes thought and many times controversy? Something that inspires, enlightens, takes you from the humdrum and into a world of possibilities? I suppose all of these apply as partial definitions. For me, if a book or a picture connects me to the artist I'm hooked and call it ART. Both of these mediums allow people to share what's inside their heads. They give expression to thought and that always amazes me.

    Wonderful post.

  12. what a greaaaat blog ,love your blog =) follow

  13. @ cleemckenzie

    I guess, here's the thing about that question... most writers/artists that we consider *masters* were not appreciated in their own time. Since the idea of what 'good art' is changes so much slower than the actual world of art (and writing is of course the same). Basically having commercial success meant you'd be considered a 'master' 50 or 100 years later.

    I think, the most interesting change, is the speed of technology. Now, it's not just a bunch of old-century, highly-educated critics slowly putting out articles. With the internet, reviews fly out nano-fast, and due to the wide-spread accessibility, you can now just do a Google search for images and see an artist's entire collection of work.

    Remember, good art was owned/controlled by the wealthy, so most people would never actually see it, which was another reason for the molasses-slow changes in the definition of what made art, or writing, 'good'.

  14. @ Damon

    hi, Damon! Nice to meet you ;)


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)