Saturday, July 4, 2020
Why do people make art? What is art?
Broadly defined, art is human effort to create and perpetuate culture. What is culture? The aesthetic and intellectual achievements of humanity. They are an inheritance from our ancestors. And our obligation to future generations. Culture separates our species from other animals. "[C]ulture husbands its liveliness in its works of art, they are like storage barrels for" imagination (p. 253).
Should you or I make art? Yes, and we do it all the time, whether we realize it or not. Writing a personal letter, selecting pieces for a clothing outfit, crafting a pumpkin for Halloween -- these are all art. Art is not merely objects wealthy elites own; it is earnest effort by all of us in both exalted and pedestrian arenas.
I’ve spent much of my life admiring and learning about art. Art in galleries, art in the cinema, art in literature. Photography is one of my ways to create art. I search for visual imagery, grab it on film and present results to others. Photography, like other art media, is something you improve at with training and practice.
My plan for the future is to migrate from my law career (ending it when material needs are met) to a mélange of artistic activities. Most of those activities will not be offered for respect or money; they’ll be pursued for the intrinsic joys of creative life. In short, for my own benefit.
In anticipation of this shift, I’ve been studying. “When the student is ready, the teacher shall appear.” Friends of mine who are professional artists recommended an old book to me -- “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde, a poet. Written in 1983, the book examines the human impulse to create art and its role in the community. My mind consumed the book like ice cream -– it explores subjects I care deeply about and stimulates me toward future action.
I won’t try to describe the book to you, but will briefly mention its core lesson: the distinction between commerce and gifts. Hyde spends the first half of the book explaining this point and, in the second half, applies it to two poets (Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound) for illustration
In commercial transactions, strangers meet, exchange a commodity on agreed price and then leave. The transaction generates no personal connection between seller and buyer. Gifts, by contrast, are offered freely and create emotional bond. Gifts have a different purpose than commerce. Their offer and acceptance cause a variety of social effects which Hyde traces among several ancient and remote societies. The principles he outlines become suddenly clear while reading; once they do, you see the world differently.
It’s not an exaggeration to say this book is changing my life. It's altering how I view social interactions and teaching me what happens when art enters society. I plan to use that knowledge to steer my future life.
"The greatest art offers us images by which to imagine our lives. And once the imagination has been awakened, it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we had to say" (p. 251).