The Art Inside Your Head

“Art is selective. What is there is essential and creates movement.”
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

Post by Victoria Mixon.

finding the art inside of your head
Photo by Stephen Poff

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mauco May 16, 2009, 4:16 pm

    Hi Victoria,

    Thanks for this post. Very interesting and inspiring. I hope I positively inspire folks long after I'm gone too.

  • Mauco May 16, 2009, 12:16 pm

    Hi Victoria,

    Thanks for this post. Very interesting and inspiring. I hope I positively inspire folks long after I'm gone too.

  • arshad April 21, 2009, 6:55 am

    Your article is great.We always have some special idea in mind we wo'nt execute.So its the time to execute our idea.

  • Daniel April 6, 2009, 11:08 pm
  • Ari Lestariono April 3, 2009, 5:00 am

    After gone through many decades of time, especially now financial turmoil, does art still have it' value?

    • Victoria April 8, 2009, 5:37 pm

      Good question. Does anything?

      In terms of using art as an escape from the pressures of reality, times of financial turmoil would seem to be those times in which art is needed the most. For instance, right now romance writers are seeing a real surge in popularity. Why? Maybe readers just need to be reassured.


  • Victoria March 24, 2009, 4:03 pm

    For those who are interested, I did write today on where humans originally got the urge to tell stories and why we still have that urge. Please feel free to visit:

  • Anca March 19, 2009, 4:13 am

    Very nice post.

    I like this one: “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.” :)

    Thank you Victoria

  • Glen Allsopp March 17, 2009, 7:38 am

    Great post:

    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.”

    That literally made me laugh out loud. Keep up the great work


  • LisaNewton March 16, 2009, 10:13 pm

    I never thought about it like that, you really hit the nail on the head. I like to think of my photography a little like this. How I move, what I focus on, my subject matter, the shadows and light. It's all part of me.

    A friend of mine who has gone with me when I take my camera just sits back and says, “I'll let the artist do her work.” I really like that.

    • Victoria March 17, 2009, 5:11 pm

      It can be helpful to consciously notice what two things you're linking with a particular photograph–a bird and a view, water and the pattern of light, a face and a bush or a building or an angle of sun. It gives you more control over playing with the image, to see the possibilities inherent to whatever your internal trained artist has chosen.

  • Meredith March 16, 2009, 4:45 pm

    Makes me wonder about the evolutionary process. Why did artistic ability evolve in humans?

    • Victoria March 16, 2009, 6:28 pm

      I have a theory about that, having grown up with an anthropology professor, which I'm planning to blog on this week. Thanks for asking!

  • Gary March 16, 2009, 2:07 pm

    It's interesting to me that “art” as a human activity is prehistoric — at what point did humans begin singing to themselves? and what point did someone crouch over a fire and embellish the saga of a hunt? — and so, with that in mind, I might be convinced that “art” is a biological imperative. Of course, were I to do so, we'd drift off into a discussion of the evolutionary process. But let's simply say, in light of this interesting perspective, that art might be “looking inward's interpretation of looking outward.”

    Or maybe not.

  • Elwood Gray March 16, 2009, 1:59 pm

    I was so pleased to see Victoria's name crop up on LifeDev! I enjoyed this article as I do all of the ones on her writing blog. I confess that I don't understand most modern art, but this is a new way to look at it. I especially like the point about the permanence of good art, as if there is a creative momentum that can continue beyond our short lives.

  • Amy March 16, 2009, 1:54 pm

    Beautiful and thoughtful perspective on art – thanks for sharing.

  • Catherine Cantieri, Sorted March 16, 2009, 1:37 pm

    That's a really beautiful post, and I love Victoria's take on art as looking outward. Thanks for posting this!