How We Use Art

I talked a little bit on my Call Me Maybe post about what makes something art, not that I was definitive at all; it's something that has been debated about for awhile.

Shakespeare wrote for a paycheck - for crowds of   common people, tomatoes at the ready, standing in an outdoor theater on the outskirts of London. He made no attempt for his work to be kept in printed form.

The impressionists were considered a bit nuts when they were first doing their large brushstrokes and multi-colored haystacks. They were pushing the limits of what people considered respectable painting. 

It wasn't until a few white musicians started playing the blues for that music to be acceptable fodder for white audiences, and it wasn't until then, of course, that it could be considered art. 

Art is a dear category to which one's work enters with much scrutiny (well, sometimes), and one which contains many of our heroes, our elites, the people we'd like to show off to the aliens. It seems to matter to us, whether it be in deciding what to teach in schools or who to put on the "Top Ten Albums of the Year" lists. In regards to this question, what I've been considering, lately, is not what internal qualities art might require, but instead how we, the audience, use art. (Because that necessarily influences how we evaluate it.)

So, on my yellow note pad, I've made a word cluster and color coded it.

1. Brown: for the Basest of Reasons - a.k.a Gaining Social Currency and/or Money

Money is an inconsistent indicator for what most people will agree is art. On the one hand, there are works in museums that, regardless of whether or not a particular viewer prefers them, he knows are art because there is a fatty price tag attached to them. On the other hand, Jodi Picoult is making a bundle of money on her books, and yet, I haven't run into many people who consider what she's doing art. In fact, "selling out", making more money on your craft can lead many people to believe a musician or artist is sacrificing their art for the sake of commerce. On a third hand, an amateur artist has much less chance of being taken seriously than does someone who actually gets paid. At any rate, it is certainly true that some people use art to make money: the artists themselves, the networks, the people producing it. Art is a business or at least has one attached.

Even those of us who are not making hard cash on art, use it for our own personal gains. It's my opinion that, in music specifically, a reason that some folks save their high praise for bands that are less well known is that we have so many bands available to us - it's a timely process to cull music from all that. Those who are willing to put in the work have a certain amount of social currency for doing so. They can set you up with the good music you've never heard of but that might come up later and you'd be so embarrassed if you were unfamiliar with it. Well-known music is much less valuable to the culler of bands.

2. Green: Mood Augmentation

We use art to feel more alive, to feel together, to get pumped up, to feel we're in the right. I'm thinking of Jock Jams before basketball games or running mixes played over headphones. We use it to feel more in love; we use it to feel justified about our sadness in breaking up. It supports our dark views on the world; it supports our bright views on the world. It gets the party started... or the movie night... or, you know, the gallery viewing. We use art to support the conviction that there is meaning to human life, that narrative exists. We use art to augment the collective mood; we use it to worship. We use art to deepen our experience, to help us understand it, and to communicate about it with or spread it to others.

3. Pink: Mood Alteration

Art is there as a distraction, an escape, a chance to get perspective on our situation, it's a way to know what it's like to be someone else. Watching Planet Earth happens to be the best remedy in times of things being the worst. It doesn't sugar coat reality, the wolf needs to kill the baby elk in order to survive, but the futile running of the elk for its life is awful to watch. It's like, "Yeah, this show gets me. I feel that." And at the same time it shows such an array of beauty that it's helped me to see and feel that there are bigger things beyond my own troubles.

Then there's the fact that each of us, individually, is never destined to leave our own skins. We'll never get the experience of literally seeing anything through somebody else's eyes, and we take ourselves everywhere. Art gives us the chance to escape a little bit from ourselves; it gives us a little glimpse of what it might be like to be outside, a way to sort of triangulate our experience with that of others.

4. Orange: To Connect with Others

There's an Adrienne Rich poem, Dedications, that starts out, "I know you are reading this poem". It made me think about what relationship an artist can have to his or her audience. Rich, who died on March 27th of last year, could know very little about me, her reader, but she writes a whole poem about what she does know. She does a lot of exploring the wreckage of what we have to work with. It's not lost on her that she can know something, have some connection with the people for whom she writes.

We, the audience, get to know a lot more about our artists. We get to hear their voices, know what they're capable of, and watch things get framed by their perspective. We get to relate to their characters, hate their characters, imagine ourselves within the universe they've created. We get to connect with some part of them, their perspectives, their imaginations, their societies. Being recently removed from a tight-knit community, I've wondered, midst the withdrawals, if art can be enough of a connection for me, enough of an access to a community. (My working theory is that it probably isn't. But it is, by all means, worth a shot.) And what I want most for my writing, what I want in my pursuit to BECOME AN ARTIST*, is to connect to other people, to help keep loneliness a little more at bay, to make their lives - cushy American lives - a little bit better.

I found the crux of this use, the use of art to connect people, last night at a friend's dinner party. I was talking to a woman in school to be an art therapist. She was saying that an advantage of being an "art" therapist as opposed to a music therapist or a dance and movement therapist is the flexibility that it offers. For her patients that don't have the fine motor skills to hold drawing or painting materials, she can incorporate music, acting, or motion. And for those, especially elderly patients, who have near-total mobility impairment, she can have a conversation with and treat the session as more of a performance piece. In this way, art is used to connect, to draw out, and it shows the progression and the point at which performance art is a conversation and a conversation, art.

*I'm not yelling at you; I'm just a little stressed about it.


  1. I like these thoughts so far. This is probably often bound up with the "social currency" use of art, but I think there is a way that we use art (or at least our preferences) to define/explain who we are in terms of identity. Sometimes this is to display to other people, but I think sometimes it's to display it to ourselves, as well.

  2. Hi John,

    Do you have an example of how that might work?

  3. I'm not sure if you are meaning that we use our preferences to help identify ourselves, as-in: I am somebody who likes slasher films. Or something more like when someone identifies with a particular character or book (or whatever).

    I feel like the former is more about building one's identity, more of a social-currency thing, and the latter describes the feeling one can get when a work of art seems to already get who that person is. Nick Hornby talks about Anne Tyler's book "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" being so much more him than anything he himself had written.

    I was just wondering what exactly you were thinking of in your comment.

    1. I was thinking more along the lines of the former. I think mainly what I wanted to point out was that accruing social currency can be as much (or more, maybe) about convincing myself of something as it can be about convincing others. You learn about yourself by noticing how you react to art, and sometimes the art can become really important to you because of that.

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