Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Art for Art's Sake

In these modern days of telecommunications, where everyone has an equal voice that can be heard instantly almost anywhere on the planet (and into high orbit, even), there has arisen an unusual movement in the creative fields. This movement usually takes the form of a high, shrill voice shouting...

"ART!!!"

A lot of people like to shamelessly use the word art, or some of its poor, bastard stepchildren (creativity, genius, literature, and even more, I'm sure). It's why they don't follow any rules of grammar, ignore spelling, and why they brush off anyone who tries to correct them or offer helpful hints.

Worse yet, some of these "artistic" folks try to get others to follow their twisted path. They condemn the rules of English and will try to convince you none of "that stuff" is important in your writing. What matters, they insist, is the ART. Nothing matters but the art, and they're quick to leap on anyone who dares to hint otherwise.

Short story time...

In college, I had a teaching assistant openly mock me because I said I wanted to write stories to entertain people. In front of the entire class he told me if I wasn't writing words that were intended to change the world I was just wasting everyone's time. My first assignment (a vampire story) came back with a lot of red ink on it. So did my second one (a tale about a dimensional shortcut cutting across the worst possible dimension). Only my third story gave me a passing grade, because he read a lot of stuff into it that... well, I wasn't going to say it wasn't intended. I had a GPA to consider.

Slightly longer story...

A few years after college, but still several years back, I was a full-time carpenter and stagehand at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Rep is a small space in downtown (in the basement of a mall, to be honest) and used to help pay the bills by renting out space on one or two of their smaller stages. There were late-night improv teams, experimental theater groups, things like that which could usually only afford one or two performances. One night I was finishing up late and came across the house manager watching some kids doing a theater class project. They had an "audience" up on stage with a video camera while three or four other kids were out in the house trying (emphasis on trying) to build a full-sized scaffolding with 2x4's and power tools. It was an attempt at "art," and the house manager and I had a few giggles over it.

A few minutes after I stopped to watch, one of the kids with a Makita drill balanced it wrong on a drywall screw and ended up stabbing himself in the hand near the base of his thumb (almost anyone who's used a cordless drill can probably identify with this injury, even if none of us have done it since the second or third time the drill was placed in our hands). Well, construction came to a grinding halt, all the students checked out his thumb, and it was decided they would continue.

"See," I told the house manager. "That's my problem with modern art."

"What?"

"Was he supposed to stab himself with the drill? It fit with what they're doing. Did we just see an accident or part of the performance?"

She laughed, I laughed, but this offhand comment stuck with me. Y'see, I firmly believe art is not an accidental creation. You can't throw paint at a wall and call it art. While statistically a million monkeys with a million typewriters can produce the complete works of Shakespeare in a million years, we all really know that many millennia from now it's still just going to be piles of gibberish and crap. And maybe an Ann Coulter book or two. Art can't happen by accident.

Which brings me to my second point, which will sound a bit contradictory. Art is always accidental. It is never, ever a deliberate act. The act of creation is deliberate. The artistic merit is not. History has shown this again and again, yet people still like to think they can make "art" and that others are fools for not recognizing it.

Ray Bradbury. William Shakespeare. Frank Capra. H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens. Stephen King. Joss Whedon. Robert Louis Stevenson. When each of these writers and screenwriters started their careers, they were considered populist hacks at best, and at worse... well, critics can come up with some creative terms. Most of them weren't writing to create art, but to pay rent and cover debts. They just loved to write and that was their main concern. Telling a story and getting a paycheck.

As time went on, however, people looked back and said "Hey, you know this guy really did say something about the human condition!" Did you know every one of these writers now has an entire college course devoted to them? At a number of universities, you can study Joss Whedon and the feminist empowerment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or modern political undertones of Stephen King. Heck, I even understand there are a few schools where Shakespeare is considered a full major. William Shakespeare—who almost always wrote under a deadline and had to make constant changes to please patrons and actors. Just like the guys who wrote Transformers.

Now, here's the rub...

Let's take 100 writers and split them into four even groups. Each one of them publishes a handful of short stories this year. The members of group A are hailed as geniuses in magazines, newspapers, and on the newly-created inter-webbing thing. The others collect a paycheck.

However...

Next year, several folks from group B are asked to contribute their stories to an anthology, while several of A are forgotten. Ten years after that, people are asking whetever happened to those writers from group C. And a decade after that, people are pointing at the D stories as unrecognized classics of the time.

So... who's the artist?

This is simplified, granted, but it gets the point across. What counts as art changes day by day, generation to generation. I had a college professor once freely admit that the canon of great American literature changes every time someone hits tenure and publishes a new paper, crediting one person while discrediting another. How can your work aspire to a state which changes its definitions almost on a daily basis?

Trying to create art is like trying to hit a mosquito with a laser pointer. Between either end of things, it's almost impossible. Don't worry about "art." Nine times out of ten, I've found "art" is an excuse to explain rejection and criticism.

Just write the best story you can.

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