Imagine this: a young man, disaffected with life and its thousand daily stings, channels that raw emotion into a work of imagination. He dreams up a world where all the little cruelties of modern life are given a concrete form, where hope becomes a personified, unstoppable force, and where the future is a shining jewel whose mysteries, good and ill, hide behind an impenetrable veneer of red crystal. He takes these thoughts, this expression of his dreams and his very soul and puts them to paper, and out from from his quivering pen flows... something akin to the infamous Eye of Argon, often lauded as the worst piece of fantasy literature ever written.* Most people can agree that our young man’s work is terrible. But to paraphrase Kipling, it’s not very clever, but is it art?
What got me thinking about this, as usual, is video games. For anyone who hasn’t picked it up, I play a lot of video games, and the perennial favorite argument in the video game circle is “can video games be art?” A recent post by carrie_ryan rebuts some specters of the same argument directed at YA lit, and we see this type of argument directed at all types of allegedly “genre” literature. That got me thinking about the nature of “art,” and rather than doing a bunch of high-falutin’ research on the history of art criticism, LJ seemed to be as good a place to take the discussion as any.
So my question is, while we sit and talk about whether the latest summer blockbuster movie or chick-lit release or first-person shooter or whatever is really good enough to be called art, does quality really have anything to do with being artistic? I’ve seen enough works I’ve really thought were amazing flop and enough things succeed, both commercially and critically, which I personally could not imagine anyone ever letting out into the market that I have come to accept the fact that taste is way subjective, and my tastes may not in any way reflect those of people at large. May not even be similar, in fact. So if quality really does matter to artistic merit, how do we judge it? And if it doesn’t, then isn’t a child’s stick figure drawing just as artistic as Picasso?
To my point: I think writers write for two different purposes: 1) to entertain; and 2) to achieve artistic merit. Some people write for the former, some for the latter, and probably most of us for both. But we take this idea of art very seriously. And I wonder if that isn’t a cop-out, a way of allowing ourselves to aspire to something without ever forcing us to define exactly what it is we want to be. Is it really universal appeal we’re trying to reach? Emotional resonance? Effective storytelling or innovation? If we nail down what we’re aiming for, maybe that will help us reach it. And maybe it would help us focus our criticism and not be so pretensious if we acknowledge that even a story we don’t like is a work of art.
Anyway, these are just my impressions. What I’d really love to hear are your thoughts on the issue. Does “art” have a meaning to you? Am I just missing the obvious, or way off base? What do you aspire to in your writing?
* I have no reason to believe that this is in any way the origin of The Eye of Argon. Its reference here is purely for demonstrative purposes.