I recently made a decision that in this blog I will talk about all the things that interest me. One of the things I love is art in all its myriad forms. Now it’s quite daunting to talk about anything beyond your field of expertise. I am not what you might traditionally call an artist, neither am I an art critic or an art historian. I do appreciate and enjoy different forms of art as much as the next person. In fact art is an integral part of our lives as people and it would be impossible to imagine a world without it. Since art concerns me I have enough license to be concerned about it.
One of the reasons why I love blogging is that as I try to communicate my ideas, I also learn something. The writing process slows things down enough for you to better reflect on what you are saying. Sometimes you gain new startling insights. That was what happened when I was doing a series on the biblical prophets, I learnt something about art.
In God’s Actor I discussed the ancient relationship between art and prophecy. People have long noted the similarities. It was in fact common for the biblical prophets to employ poetic techniques and dramatic symbolism in their prophecy. Also poets were able to describe and even anticipate things with such uncanny accuracy that people assumed they were supernaturally inspired. By studying this ancient portrait I noticed the fundamental relationship between artists and prophets is that they are both story-tellers. I then discerned the most basic art-form is story telling.
Novel’s and folktales are the most obvious examples of story-telling but other art forms tell stories too. Paintings, like the world-famous Mona Lisa, also tell stories. When you see her you wonder what her smile is about. Is she even smiling or was she a real person at all? All these questions swirl in our minds because in interpreting art of any kind we try to form a coherent narrative that accounts for what we perceive with our senses. Whether it is a song, a movie, or a sculpture, whatever form of art it is, there is a narrative at play.
With this realisation I recognised that the best artists are the best story tellers. For example right now, one of the best rappers is Kendrick Lamar. What makes Kendrick so good, apart from his phenomenal technique and delivery, is that he is a talented story teller. I recently read the lyrics to his opening verse in M.A.A.D City. I encountered a powerful and coherent semi-autobiographical account of an everyday reality for some people in another part of the world. Again the best films, the ones that endure, tell compelling stories. Art is not about the spectacle. At its core it is about the narrative.
Even though I have identified what art generally does, it does not mean the question of what art is has been settled. Like many things worthwhile in the world like learning, politics and relationships, art is complex. As such it is notoriously difficult to define. When we do ask the question “what is art?” we usually mean one of two things. What is art as a category and what can be categorised as art? These are very important issues since art is a form of human expression that communicates meaning.
Questions of meaning and how we express it are fundamental to any society. For example in dictatorial regimes artistic expression is keenly scrutinized. This is because art is able to stir urges and desires in people that can help them rally fearlessly to a cause. It is no wonder that every sovereign state on earth has its own anthem. The Scottish writer and politician, Andrew Fletcher, went so far as to say,
Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.
A third question, which is of particular interest to me, is the ethical one. If something is categorised as art, does it become legitimate or morally permissible? Is art without boundary to say and do as we please?
In our modern stimuli saturated world of YouTube, Instagram and Netflix, art is coming to us in an unprecedented manner. It carries ideas and conveys philosophies that have to be discussed and debated. For instance in the United States the most powerful arguments for homosexuality are not found in ethics departments neither in government meetings. It is through the medium of the arts. Almost every show has a homosexual character. Also the slogan “not that there’s anything wrong with that” anytime there is a mention of homosexuality by a heterosexual character has become a common refrain. Art has a powerful and pervasive influence on human society. It is an absolute imperative that if we want to affect society we must understand its art.
Header image source: twiseart.com