What is Art?

What is Art?

Somebody’s always asking that question. 

It ranks up there with “Who am I?” and “What is literature?” in the Top 10 Questions People Delight in Not Knowing the Answers to. 

So, I was glad last week to see Seth Godin call in E.M. Forster to examine the “Art” question.

“To make us feel small…is a function of art,” says Forster.

About literature I’m willing to say the same thing—its function is to make us feel small.  If that sounds all wrong, it’s because “small” connotes something wrong. 

Typically, though, what is small or wrong in the everyday world turns out to be an advantage in that other more subtle realm about which most people (writers excluded, of course!) delight in knowing as little as possible.

E.M. Forster (A Room with a View, A Passage to India) points out that there are right and wrong ways to “feel small”.  The right kind of “small” is a precondition for moving beyond our narcissistic self. 

Seth Godin, in his blog, comments that, “Feeling small gives us the guts to create something bigger, bigger than ourselves.”  With all due respect, I think it’s by “guts” that we endure our shrunken status without freaking out, but the “something bigger” isn’t a function of us at all. 

Becoming part of something bigger is a state of grace that descends into the emptiness of our disappearing.  Kazantzakis calls this the “supreme human achievement”. 

Growing up—it’s a tricky business!

Which explains why the human organizm depends upon something like Art to affect the essential first step of getting out of our own way.  Here’s how I see it:

Art makes us small—guts keeps us in the game—awakening is the gift.

Take a literary work of art like Zorba the Greek.  We identify with the main character who can’t let go of his socialist theories and simply “Live!”  The author, Kazantzakis, artfully portrays the crumbling of his hero’s assumptions, and the reader is similarly down-sized, psychically speaking.  This is the essential ego-shrinking that Art can induce in us.

Readers (no less than the anal-retentive protagonist) open to a more inclusive worldview.  In the final scenes of Zorba, we readers are no less surrendered than the Marxist when, finally, he tells Zorba, “Teach me to dance.”

I have the urge to turn this into a game—answering the Top 10 Questions that People Would Rather Not Know the Answers to.

Over to you… what questions absolutely must be on that list? 

To view the work “Antiquary” and for more info on the artist: http://www.theswallowsnest.ca/create-connect-art-show-march-15-april-16/

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  1. says

    What is the meaning of life?
    Are we the only intelligent life in the universe?
    What happens after death?
    The big kahunas. Ha ha. Good question, PJ!

  2. says

    Of course, numero uno: “What is the meaning of life?” I find it strange that we in the Postmodern era have stopped asking that question when it’s quite possible that all Art tilts us toward an answer. I wonder… did Monty Python destroy that question forever?

  3. says

    I can’t see a time when we’ll ever really stop asking the numero uno question. Do you really think it’s not asked as much these days, PJ? I don’t see that… It still drives people to exploring religion, and the arts today. It’s still the major reason a whole slew of people drift aimlessly through life, sans hope, because they haven’t engaged in their own personal search for something deeper, wider, higher, and grander than their ‘4 walls’ — their own answers to ‘the meaning of life’…
    As to Monty Python, let’s face it, they did no wrong, only good, in making us laugh and laugh till our sides split.
    Psst…if you don’t need the meaning of life already, don’t read ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’!! Haha

  4. says

    Being in the art community for a long time, I’ve been to some really horrid art shows where I wish I were so small that I could escape out the back exit. These tend to include full art installations that make you wonder what horrid things were done to these artists as a child.
    I have also been blessed with viewing and communicating with the most beautiful art. Communication is the key word here. You feel as if the artist has brought you to something that is bigger then you, them or anyone and you both understand the awe. You, the viewer, are then thankful beyond mere words to the artist for their special gift in translating this to you.
    No words are spoken, for even the writer cannot find words that withstand the beauty of the larger universe.

  5. says

    Thanks, Lee… yes, we do need regular communication from that realm that’s too huge for the human organizm to manage, never mind understand. Isn’t that the basic tension in our lives? We live on the surface, but in constant awe of what lies beneath/above/beyond. As writers, it’s our job to live in the liminal zone between the two. And report back. What say ye?

  6. says

    In the liminal zone…I know of no one else who would come up with such a beautiful phrase. If you don’t use it for your next book, may I?

  7. says

    Lee… please use “liminal zone”. I was introduced to it in essays on “the imaginal realm”. I get goosebumps whenever I utter — even silenty — “the liminal zone”. It feels like base camp for onward forays up the Congo of our imaginations.

  8. says

    Oh please don’t send me to another realm. I’m just getting started with this huge Niantes Project. See my latest post my current website (you have address, yes?) Start with the update at the bottom so you can see how it applies to author platforms and then make sure you click on the links. It’s a game changer for digital publishing.

  9. says

    Yikes! Talk about a question no one wants to hear himself ask. We’re deeply boxed in by the wrong kind of “smallness”. That question is so potent because just by asking it, the answers appear — a list of actions, which, if undertaken, would lead to an appropriate “biggness”… and then to the right kind of “small”. Does that make sense?

  10. says

    Yes, your last comment makes complete sense and I’m sick to the stomach just thinking of it.
    I researched the liminal zone. Wow. I have a title for my next book.
    Sure wish I could have signed up for Story Cartel but too many med bills. Sent someone over to Joe though and he sent me back a sweet reminder.
    Do you know we run in many of the same circles, P.J.? No wonder we’re dizzy!

  11. says

    This is like the question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? But it is not in the search for nothingness that defines nirvana. It’s the need to feel like we are part of something bigger and ‘more meaningful’. For if there isn’t something greater than us, there is little meaning in the universe; for that is what makes us feel small in the ‘wrong’ way. If you are not religious, then it explains the need to believe in a higher being. Beautiful literature, like beautiful art touches on the sublime and skims across the bottom of the Heavens. We see it as inspired; the unspoken definition of inspired being coming from a place unknown to those on earth. I find it hard to put into a question unless you want to take the route of “what is an atom?” Then I can say, split it and look inside. The narcissist or pessimist would say you get an atom bomb. Those with an optimistic bent would start talking about string theory, quarks and quantum physics. Does my question answer yours? (Sorry, I had to come back as your question sparked some neurons 😉

  12. says

    LeeJay… your question and comments inspire just the kind of questions I like to explore on this blog. Let’s keep in touch both on this site and yours. And by the way… that guy who asked the koan-like question about actions awaiting permission… his “Break a Rule” site is addictive, so you’ve been warned.

  13. says

    You know warning are inticing to certain personalities…I’m just saying. (I also have a site on the org side of life-sane ‘wordpress’, same name. But it is all business and isn’t up to your level of thinking and feeling.) I’m off to get delayed !!

  14. says

    Top 10 Questions that People Would Rather Not Know Answers to:
    1. Does this dress make me look fat?
    2. Do I look like I just fell off the back of a turnip truck?
    3. Are all Republicans corrupt pigs?
    4. Is it okay to wear white after Labor Day?
    5. Do these pants make me look fat?
    6. Can you tell me where the IRS office is?
    7. Are we driving in the wrong lane, Dear?
    8. Look! Up in the sky! Is that meteor going to hit us?
    9. Does this bikini make me look fat?
    10. Do I look stupid to you?

  15. says

    Hey, Mike… how ’bout establishing a blog dedicated to these profound questions. You’re a bit of a s–t disturber, aren’t you? By the way, how’s your second novel coming? I loved “In Deep Salt”. I don’t know anyone who disturbs salt like you do.

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