Someone in my comments yesterday brought up the whole question of the division between art and craft, and right now – at this very moment – old habitues of the blog are groaning and shaking their heads and saying “Did you have to start THAT again? Don’t you know what she’s like when she gets wound up?”
But it’s okay – truly – you may crawl out from under the various pieces of furniture. I’m still just the slightest bit under the weather, so there will be minimal flingage (it is too a word if I say it is!) of fish, and anyway, I want to talk rationally about this. (You, yes, you, the gentleman with the pug, smirking in front of his screen! – Wipe that smirk off your face. I’ve been rational in the past. Once. It was a Thursday. It might have been foggy.)
Is there such a thing as “Art” – as distinguishable from really, really, really, really, really good craft?
Stop looking at me as if I’d lost my mind. (It’s not true anyway. I know exactly where I left my mind – University Hospital delivery room, Charlotte, NC, 21 years ago. I’m sure it’s still there, in the corner. Cowering.)
Seriously. Is there such a thing as art, distinguishable from superb craft? If there is, how would you tell?
Well… If you’re mumbling “I know art when I see it” – I agree with you. There is… a quality to art. A touch of something more than human. Something that shouldn’t/couldn’t be conjured out of mere blood, flesh and bone.
I discovered this when I was dead broke – about a year after leaving my mind behind – in Columbia, SC. Dan left his job to look after me when I had pre-eclampsia. Unfortunately the job he took on, which was supposed to let him work from home and pay him, didn’t PAY. So… by the time Robert was born we were already in trouble. By the time we gave up on getting paid, we were in MORE trouble. By the time Dan found a job in South Carolina (I couldn’t work. Took me forever to recover, besides having an infant) we were in so much trouble it wasn’t even funny.
This led to the first two years of Robert’s life as we paid back a mountain of debt and lived mostly off a gigantic bag of frozen veggies a week and a lot of rice. (The meat was boiled with the veggies and given to Robert as soon as he could eat.)
It’s hard to explain how broke we were. We’ve been stone broke since, but never to the point where buying a used paperback meant I skipped the daily meal for a couple of days. (And yes, I still bought them. You make your choices, I make mine.)
So, in that time, when life seemed like a sterile relentless slog of “must do” with no fun at all (we didn’t own a TV and this was pre-internet. And I’d already read every book we owned five times. – G-d, I would have KILLED for Amazon and the free promotional e-books!) – before even we came to Colorado and things eased a very little – I don’t remember how or why, we found ourselves going through a used book store. (They had a free rack up front.) I guess Dan thought it was safe to take me to the coffee table books. See, I had never been a “pretty pictures” kind of girl.
And then I opened a book of DaVinci works. I can’t explain it. Those pictures were like balm on my abraded stomped-down soul. They were beautiful like nothing in our life was beautiful right then (well, except the kid.) But it was more than that. Something to those paintings stirred and touched depths I’d have sworn I didn’t have.
It must have shown in my face because Dan said something along the lines of “Screw paying back the bills as fast as possible. You can and must have this,” and sprang he $40 we realistically could NOT afford to buy the book. Through the next three years, until bills were paid off and we could breathe and schedule in a little fun, THAT book served as a refuge. Spending a couple of hours staring at the pictures was like a mini-vacation for my eyes and mind. (AND should you doubt the world is a better place, if we should find ourselves in the same situation again – and we’ve been close – now, twenty years later, there are art sites I could look at for the price of the net connection which we must have, anyway.) In similar circumstances I’ve had my mind eased by watching a Shakespeare play (yes, they’re okay read, but that’s one thing I prefer to watch and hear) or by reading a loved book.
There is to art that which touches something you might not have been aware of having. In books, it absolutely makes you live the story, drags you into it, pours emotion into you, and leaves you in a different place from where you started.
Oh, I found out years later, the same is true of music – and do to an hearing issue I am the world’s worst music-appreciation person. BUT friends gave us symphony tickets during annus horriblis, when I was killing myself with six novels for which I had NO hope of success, AND homeschooling the child. That evening surrounded by music (there’s no other way to describe it) was enough to carry me through the next six months, till things got better.
So, yeah, in my opinion, there is art – but how can you tell it from good craft? What particle of canvas can you boil that will yield “art.” I know it by its effect on me. You know it by its effect on you.
And what is the difference between art and craft? Well… craft, no matter how great doesn’t do that. Also, art can cover a multitude of thumb prints and ill-mended plot points. I.e. some things are art even though the craft sucks so badly that the Dyson people have considered integrating it into their vacuum cleaners. And some things are wonderful, wonderful craft and utterly lifeless and do nothing for you.
What I want you to understand, though, is that this appreciation, this feeling in the soul, this transcendent beauty, is FELT – which means it’s subjective.
I love looking at DaVinci. Robert, my older son, can be brought to tears by Van Gogh. I have nothing against Van Gogh. If you have to admire some post-renaissance artist, he’s a fine one, but I wouldn’t sit transfixed in front of his work for hours.
What is art to you, might be “oh, that’s just really good craft” to me. Or it might be even “OMG, I couldn’t even read it.”
Here I must make a detour – No, Sarah! Not you! You of the clear and linear thought! – and point out that readers often “can’t stand” a book for reasons that writers find bizarre. No, seriously. You might write an 800 page opus, and pour into it every ounce of your life experience, every particle of feeling and thought you can imbue it with; you might polish each word till it shines; but someone out there will say “well, I hit that thing on page eight, where she buys a pink Cadillac, and it completely lost me forever. Sorry. I just couldn’t empathize with a character who would do that.” Or your character has freckles. Or you used the word imbue wrong. (And it wasn’t even you but some copyeditor who did that, after your final go through, and you never saw it, till it was in print. – No? It’s happened to me. Like the one who put t at the end of every thou in a book set in Tudor England.)
The flip side of this is that what will make the book for some readers is something off the cuff that you just let fall. There will be the conversation your character has with his dog, which you just dropped in because you could, or the fact your character drinks only single malt, and this will send a reader into raptures and make him or her a fan forever. My assumption is it balances out.
But the fact remains your exquisitely crafted, maybe even artistic book, will never reach everyone, and might not reach people it’s perfect for, because they don’t like your use of hydrogen peroxide in disinfecting small cuts. (No, seriously.)
And again, I must bring up the point that some of the books my best friends or even my husband think are art and stand outs are books that I can’t read past page three. Worse, some of the books that shook me to my very core at 17, now read trite, contrived, and I see the wires moving the characters as it were. Or even worse, books I loved at 30, I now can’t read because, inexplicably, the word cadence has become like nails on the blackboard to me. (This is reversible, too. For years there was an author I couldn’t read because his word choice bothered me. EVERY ONE OF THEM was subtly wrong. Ten years later, he became one of my absolute favorite writers and remains so another almost twenty years later. What changed? My own use of language? (Well, being ESL, when I first got here, I felt language differently.) My hormonal balance? The attention I devote to reading? Who KNOWS?
Was he art before? Is he art now? WHO KNOWS?
Art exists. Is it universal? Can you find it? More, can you know if you are putting art into your work?
This is the part of the blog where Sarah throws her hands up in the air and asks you if you wouldn’t like a nice slice of cake instead. You’re overwrought. Thinking too much is bad for you. It gives you astigmatism and puts hair in your eardrums. Here – pours you some tea – take a deep breath.
The answer to your question is: Who knows? Who cares?
If you try to figure out whether you’re a mere craftsman or an artist – worse, if you try to convince your friends some writer you adore is an artist, not a craftsman – you’ll drive yourself, your friends, and possibly total strangers who’ve never done anything to you completely insane.
Look, kid, we don’t know for sure – of course – but there’s a good chance Shakespeare wrote to pay his bills and buy his wife a nice house. Dumas dang well wrote to pay his bills – with notable lack of success at times. Heinlein said loud and clear that he wrote to pay his bills. Rex Stout? Yep. Paid his bills.
So, write to pay your bills. Or at least aim to. This will keep you honest and keep you from going chasing after your own tail, starting to wear a pony tail, sit in fashionable cafes and hold your demi-tasse just so. It will certainly keep you from using the excuse that your stuff just doesn’t sell because you’re too good for this terrible world. And it will keep you grounded. Also, if you’re not writing art – and you can’t know, and I can’t know. Someone might know, but you might never meet them – at least your efforts helped support you.
And use all your craft the best you can. IF the muse stoops down and kisses you, well and good. Then ages yet unborn will sing of your genius. And if it doesn’t, chances are you’ll never know.
AIM at competent and exquisitely crafted. If you surpass that, win.
On the other hand, if you REALLY insist on being “an artist” I have a beret my mom sent me, which is two sizes too small for me (I am blessed with a massive head. That’s it. The gentleman who sniggered will stay after school and clean out the erasers.) You’re welcome to it. If all you want is to say that you’re an artist and strike a pose that’s easily done.
If not, go work and stop worrying your head about things you can never figure out. Might as well count the angels on the head of a pin or calculate the flight velocity of dragons.
If the muse has kissed you, someone else will feel it. Stop thinking about it.