What is 'art'?


Before I go any further, perhaps I need to define what I mean by "art." John Cassavetes, the father of American Independent film and one of the great artists of the twentieth century, simply defined it as being (to paraphrase) the process of expressing one’s feelings freely. So it’s simply a way of doing something that is influenced by what you feel. This means that – to use [the filmmaker’s] examples – something as simple as raising a child and engaging in male-female relationships can be an art; but only if it is done in a way that is free from outside influences, from the collective mentality.

 

For instance, I would argue that most people in the world raise their children according to a social blueprint; that is, they raise them so that they will be "normal" and be able to function "normally" within a given society. This, of course, takes the art out of raising a child; it denies both the parents' and the child's ability to express themselves freely. In fact, raising a child for many people is like making a film for commercial purposes; in both cases, your actions are done according to how others feel you should act, not according to how you, personally, feel you should act.

 

To put it another way, most people raise their children in a manner so that they will be more marketable within a given society, just like a Hollywood producer would develop a "high-concept" movie. But in doing so, they kill the child, because marketing them involves reducing them to one definitive identity (the one that will allow people to identify who they are). And a person with one definitive identity isn't a person with a soul, for a soul, as we can learn from someone like William James, is in a constant state of change. As soon as a person defines who they are and locks themselves into one particular identity, their soul is lost and they die.

 

This issue with marketable identities, incidentally, is also what dooms most male/female relationships in the world, so much that a simple first date has become about as enriching an experience as a sales-pitch meeting. Women and men, so conditioned by the marketing mindset that runs our culture, feel they have to reduce themselves to a definitive identity - one that outside influences (TV, family, friends) have determined as being normal - so that their date knows what kind of a person he/she is like. Both parties want to know what they'll be getting into before they invest their time and energy in the product (i.e. their date).

 

In today's business-oriented culture, life has basically become one huge market where everyone is trying to "pitch" their selves to others (and to themselves) as both a definitive identity and a "normal" identity. People identify themselves and, in turn, relate to each other according to how others feel they should, not how THEY feel they should. The result is a society full of dead relationships where nobody feels they can express their true identities and feelings to each other, simply because they are afraid that these things won't fit somewhere into the "normal" paradigm.

 

A work of art, to me, is anything that reattaches us with our souls, the source of our feelings, which are what make up the only true "reality." Where there are so many things in society that only serve to detach us from these feelings and even make us feel ashamed of them (like in the case of the media, religion, the majority of jobs and politics), we need something to reattach us to our feelings, because they are what we need to be in touch with in order to be in touch with reality. And living in reality is the only way we’ll be able to live the most meaningful life possible.

 

Works of art capture pure feeling. And pure feelings can't be assimilated into absolutist society's collective catalogue of normal identities. If we see how strange somebody else's feelings are (relative to what is considered normal) then we won't feel so ashamed of our "strange" feelings and, more importantly, we won’t feel strange.

 

This is why I believe studying a work of art is as essential as eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day (or, if you don't like that analogy, it's as essential as getting thirty minutes of exercise a day or whatever is recommended by the Surgeon General). Art simply teaches us that it really is ok to feel what we feel, despite what outside influences say is normal, and living according to how we feel should be as much a part of all daily decision-making as possible. It’s the healthiest way to be.

 

Art as the Study of Human Problems

There is NOTHING more important in life than art. That's the one thing that I think is absolute, mainly because art shows us that nothing in life IS absolute. Art is the exploration and study of human problems, and human problems are the seeds from which all political, social, racial and cultural problems grow. If you study art, you can gain great insight into human problems and if you have great insight into human problems, you have the greatest insight you can possibly get into political/social/cultural problems; that is, of course, if such problems even warrant insight to begin with, as most of them are trivial and unimportant and, overall, serve as distractions from what IS important: human problems.

 

Incidentally, I feel stubbornness and the subsequent process of lying to oneself is a problem underlying several of the world’s conflicts, especially today’s situation in Iraq. Despite the fact that weapons of mass destruction were never discovered, President Bush insists that he made the right decision in invading Iraq. And although I can’t tell for sure whether Bush is actually lying to himself in order to justify the war, I do take into consideration the fact that he took great pride in not being a so-called “flip-flopper” during the 2004 presidential campaign, so I think it’s safe to say that if Bush does ever come to realize that he made a poor decision in invading Iraq, he would never admit it; doing so would make him look like a foolish hypocrite. Like all politicians, Bush has trapped himself in a prison where doing the right thing is almost impossible for him to do without angering many people and making himself look like a fool in the process. Frankly, I feel bad for him, because it could happen to any one of us, though the situation is graver for him because he is in a major position of power where much more is at stake….

 

But, anyway, if today’s situation in Iraq is any indication—and I think it partially is—then natural human stubbornness can be a human problem at the root of something as serious as a war. This is why I believe creating a work of art that explores human problems is the most important thing to do in the world, and so very few people realize this. That's why there is always the temptation to abandon art and become an overtly political activist because people, for some reason, pay more attention to someone who carries the appearance of being politically active, but doing that doesn't lead to anything the least bit productive, except get you a following and chicks, which, I admit, is sometimes a good thing. But, seriously, if, for example, the hippie culture listened to Cassavetes as much as they listened to Bob Dylan or John Lennon (whom were politically active but not, in my opinion, true artists), the sixties idealism era in America would have actually led to positive change, instead of the widespread fear and loathing and disillusionment that defined the 70s.

 

The same thing goes for people who support people like Michael Moore in today's culture. Moore is certainly politically active and he has quite a following for it, but where will his efforts actually lead us? Do we really have to see how big of an idiot President Bush is? Do we really have to know that the Bush family has ties with the Bin Laden family? Is something as sensationally scandalous as that going to help us figure out why a bunch of terrorists flew two airliners into the World Trade Center? Probably not...but art, which can explore all the human problems at the root of an event like 9/11, not to mention the subsequent war on terrorism that is still prevalent today, WILL, or at least begin to. And this goes for all world conflicts. I mentioned the war in Iraq before, but where do we start looking for the solution to the Israel/Palestine or Northern Ireland conflicts??? In art; in understanding human—not social or political—problems.

 

Forget all that overtly political nonsense that carries the appearance of being philanthropic. Being an artist, in my opinion, is the most philanthropic thing you can do as a human being. I heard a great filmmaker say once that, after he makes a few films, he'd like to do some humanitarian work in a third world country for a little while. I wanted to say, "Dude! What you do is already humanitarian work! There's nothing more humanitarian than creating a good, healthy piece of art!" I don't know if he'd ever see it that way, though. Most people only see philanthropy in terms of giving money to charity or being politically active or doing social work. But the reality of the matter is that, although doing all those things helps a bit, it usually doesn’t lead to any major long-term change.

 

People's inability to express themselves freely is probably the biggest problem in the world today, but very few people acknowledge it as such because they haven’t studied art, and because very few people acknowledge the problem, very few people are working to solve (or at least address) the problem. Getting involved in community groups and campaigns or helping people in a third world country does change some things, but when you really look at the situation from a long-term perspective, they don't have as important an affect as something like teaching people how to express themselves freely does, which only creating works of art or helping expose works of art to a culture will help do.

 

Now, when I say that studying art (and the human problems art explores) is the key to solving the world’s problems, I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t study other things as well. We obviously need to learn certain logistical skills before we become qualified to address any given problem plaguing the world. You can’t work out an achievable welfare system, for example, with the knowledge you gain from art alone, though I’m not sure a welfare system would even be needed if more people studied art [I explain what I mean here a little later when I suggest that the key to helping the financially poor is by, first, helping the spiritually poor]. But my point is that art needs to be the foundation of a person’s life, and for the majority of people at this point in time, it isn’t. Everyone needs to learn how to trust what they FEEL is right and only a work of art can provide that. The skills you learn in school or while being trained for a job are essential, but they are just the icing on the cake. Understanding human problems – especially the problem of expressing ourselves freely - is the cake itself.

 


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