“Art is selective. What is there is essential and creates movement.”
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
Post by Victoria Mixon.
There was a time when most humans were simply too busy surviving to mess around with art. Those who had the time left their mark on the walls of caves for tens of thousands of years, the extraordinary shapes of animal and human life that still ring in the mind of the beholder like voices. The art that remains of those eras carries a tangible trace of loss as well as creation, of longing as well as epiphany. What is gone is the life. What has survived is the essence.
Nowadays, we don’t have such fine distinctions. There’s plenty of time—for a greater percentage of us than ever in history—and we spend it in all kinds of activities, some of the least harmful and most benign of which are the arts. We can plunge both arms into essence up to the elbows and squish our hands around in it like mud. We can mold it. We can recycle it. We can throw it at each other.
And this is what many of us do.
Years ago, I went with a friend to an art show at UC Berkeley, the culmination of a year’s worth of MFA student efforts. We walked through room after room of canvases and sculptures, photographs and installations, up stairs and down, pausing in doorways to look ahead and behind, wondering. When we came out the other end, my friend asked me what I thought.
I had to be honest. “Art might very well be the insides of people’s heads. But there’s the insides of some people’s heads I don’t want to see.”
Now, Jackson Pollock can get away with enormous canvases that look as though they’ve been driven like cars through a paintwash. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but the basic one is that the inside of his head happens to be interesting. Most of us can’t do that. Most of us should be arrested if we tried.
Maya Ying Lin can design two surfaces of polished black granite to reflect the infinity of death in the faces of survivors.
Charlie Chaplin can stick two forks into bread rolls and make us laugh for fifty years.
The role of the artist is not to look in a mirror and, like some gruesome coroner, pull their own chest open to admire the contents, then photograph it and offer it for sale (although it might be kind of interesting if they did). We all have guts. They’re less than attractive.
The role of the artist is to look outward, into life, and select two things that are real—a skull and a hollyhock, a child’s toy and the notes of an octave, a dying woman and a piece of driftwood—and find in them the essential that’s basic to them both. Georgia O’Keefe, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Rebecca West found these real things, linked them in the essential, and gave them to the rest of us.
Although their lives are over, the movement of their lives continues on through ours.
This is the inside of their heads that’s worth knowing.
This is the nature of art that remains.
Follow Victoria’s advice on fiction writing at her excellent personal blog.