What is Art?

To follow up my blog, What is Feminism, now the discussion of What is Art? Man, I should start a "What is..." series!

This lively discussion was started on Flash Flood, sparked its way to Killer Year, has made a pit stop at Thinking With My Skin and is now lighting up my blog. Though I won't perhaps post as much as I could since I've made some lengthy comments on Killer Year (so if you feel like you're wanting more after reading this post, visit Killer Year and check out Sandra Ruttan's thought provoking post and then read the comments, which were very interesting as well).

One comment in particular in response to Sandra's post sparked something in me, posted by "Flood" whom I can only assume is the blogger from Flash Flood, where this conversation was started. Flood wrote: Art is supposed to move people and nowhere in the rules does it say that it’s supposed to make anyone feel good. Okay, I can buy that (except where are these "rules"? Can I get a copy?), but I think there's a big difference between making your readers feel "good" and not making them feel complete despair or to negatively and incorrectly impact the way they perceive a horrific crime, such as child sexual abuse. Maybe it's just me, but if a story implies or explicitly states that children enjoy being abused, then I personally would like to puke on the story (excuse the visual image). Perhaps I have very strong feelings about this issue since I've done Tons of research on the subject matter and know how devastating such abuse is to a child, but how do we feel about someone reading a story saying that that doesn't know any better? Then they might actually believe that shit.

I don't advocate that a story or art in general has to make people feel good, rather I don't know if I agree with ending a story in utter despair with no hope whatsoever. I don't intend to say that a story has to end with a pretty red bow and everyone skipping into the rainbow, but maybe the protagonist doesn't jump off the bridge. Is she still in a miserable marriage or life? Sure, but something made her value life when she was on the verge of losing it... and that's just enough hope to let a reader close the covers of the book or lit mag and feel like they can survive because the character could. I definitely don't agree with art that propagandas inaccurate and damaging perceptions of a victim (such as child abuse or rape victims) that either blames the victim or takes away from the truth of their horrifying experience. Saying that a child enjoys the sexual abuse (while it Is normal for a child to be sexually aroused because their physical bodies Can't Help It!) is one of the hugest inaccuracies I've ever heard.

Anyways, every artist has their own personal perception on what art IS,what constitutes art to them and what art they would like to create, and they are all entitled to their opinion. I know for me I will Never support anything that supports violence or abuse of others without being honest and showing the pain it causes. Abuse hurts, end of story. People don't Enjoy it. Perhaps they crave it to punish themselves or because they hate themselves, but that's not Enjoying it. That's a dysfunctional yearning probably born in abuse in the first place. As for what art I create, my stories can be dark, I'll be the first to admit. I've had friends look at me in shock after reading one of my stories, knowing only my bubbly, social side. How did that come out of You?! they ask me, showing me how well I've hidden the deep pool of darkness and pain that lives inside of me, grown from my own dysfunctional childhood. But I know that there is hope and strength in life because I've lived it, and I choose to create art that conveys this hope and strength. The message that life can go on and that it'll never be perfect, but it goes on. What was so special of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings if not the strength and hope Angelou shows out of horrific abuse? Had she not picked herself back up, the book would have lost its impact and perhaps would have discouraged those trying to pick themselves back up after such abuse. Angelou wasn't completely at peace with herself at the end of the novel, but she was trying and she wasn't giving up hope, which is what made the book so meaningful to the millions of people who have read it.

Regardless of how we view art or how we choose to create it, artists and writers cannot be naive to the fact that their art does carry a message whether or not they mean it to. As artists, we just have to decide what we want that message to be, and can we live with it if someone takes it to heart and acts on it? Obviously one story can not make a perfectly happy person want to commit suicide, but for that person who is deciding whether to live or not, a story about how hopeless life is and how there's nothing to live for could legitimately push the person over the edge, it could be their catalyst.

That's just my feelings on the topic, and yes, folks, I do have a strong opinion on this one! As should any artist since it affects the very essence of their work and how they conduct their work. It is only because this topic is so close to the artist's heart and being that it has sparked such passionate comments and posts in blogosphere, and it is for that reason we must discuss until we're lying on the floor panting from exhaustion!

Thanks everyone on Flash Flood, Killer Year and Thinking With My Skin for their posts and comments that has inspired me to write a much longer post then I intended and for challenging and stimulating my beliefs and thoughts on this matter.

Update: Check out this post on Wog Girl Meets World. Her story is the story that sparked much of this discussion and she has some great comments on the whole experience!


Bill Cameron said...

Mai, in a broad sense, I don't disagree with you. As I mentioned in other spots in this discussion, I would never endeavor to be gratuitous. I would never glorify the horrific, and I do try find hope, transformation, or redemption. I don't know if I think of that as something I do out of a sense of responsibility to my readers, to the art, or to myself. It's just the kind of writer I am.

You brought up a couple of specifics I'd like to speak to. You have strong feelings about sexual abuse, and you further cite the hypothetical case of a reader on the edge of despair who might be pushed over by a story lacking hope.

My first novel happens to feature childhood sexual abuse, and as it often does, the abuse touches a variety of people, each in a different way. And, yes, I do think I end on a note of hope -- there are characters in my novel find who redemption, as I put it. But as you probably know, not everyone who suffers abuse recovers. Some suffer the ravages of the abuse forever.

I felt I had to be true to the reality of what abuse can do to people. Not all the characters I created come out whole in the end, or even have any real hope of becoming whole, because I don't believe it would be genuine or honest to have written them that way.

Over at my blog, I mention a reader turned off by one element of my story, an event that occurs very early in the novel. This reader never made it to the redemption, to the hope. Arguably, for them, my novel is just about a man killing a woman. (They never even got to the really difficult stuff, in my mind.) Another reader might fix on one of my characters who didn't find their way out of the abuse. The redemption that I try to bring about for some may never been seen by readers who connect somehow.

How do we anticipate every possible reader and their state of mind? How do we anticipate unintended reactions? And can we reasonably shackle our art to a concern that our work may affect someone negatively? Even the most carefully crafted writing is going to affect different readers in different ways. I would be concerned that I was limiting myself as a writer if I allowed myself to worry about all the possible negative affects of tackling dark subjects. What about all the possible positive affects of honestly facing and evoking darkness?

To the specific point your writing instructor was making, I believe there can be a place for a story of utter hopelessness. Some art serves as cautionary role, some simply tells the truth about despair. That's a real part of what we face in life.

As writers and artists, if we accept a responsibility at all, I don't think it is to hope, but to genuineness. Being true to ourselves is a huge part of that. I think your instructor did you a disservice. If you have a story to tell, no matter how dark, you should tell it. Who knows? Perhaps that hypothetical suicidal reader wouldn't be pushed over the edge, but would read your tale and say, "I'm not going to let this happen to me."

Anyway, just a few thoughts. Thanks for being a part of this great conversation. Lots to think about...

mai wen said...

You know, I don't think that my professor meant to say that there is no place for dark stories, but more what the underlying message you are trying to convey to people with your story? What is the message of a story of utter hopelessness? If the intention of the story is to say there's no hope in life whatsoever and it's all in despair, I'm not sure if I'd appreciate such a story because that isn't truth for me. In my opinion in life, there Always is hope otherwise I wouldn't be living right now and I don't know how an author could believe in utter hopelessness and still be alive as well! I understand trying to convey someone's perception that does end up commiting suicide, obviously they didn't see hope, but even if a character doesn't believe in hope and isn't redeemed and gives up, I still feel story could convey hope, but maybe that's just me! At the same time, I can't answer whether or not such stories have a place in literature.

When this topic came up in my writing class, it was Very hotly debated with people strongly on both sides of the spectrum. Neither are wrong, neither are right. The best we as artists can do is define our own moral and ethical code in writing and stick to it, knowing that you are honoring your own inner ethics. I write dark stories of abuse and the ugly sides of humanity. I feel that it is a part of my moral fiber and a part of my purpose on earth to bring attention to the inhumanities on our planet, and I do this through writing and through advocacy work for rape and abuse victims. However, for myself, I know I will never write a story of utter hopelessness. It's not me or what I want to convey. And yes, for better or worse people can take your writing in a million different ways you didn't intend (as we've seen with Amra's story "Game"), but I will always aim for better rather than worse and I will always hope to have inspired and deeply moved someone rather than devastate and destroy all hope for someone! ;-) (That's me being a little melo-dramatic.)

I love discussions like this and am thrilled with everyone's input and passion involved with it. Thank you so much for your thoughts, it has really made me think about stories of utter hopelessness, and to be honest, I can't think of any short stories I've read that has conveyed this to me. Do you know of any? I'd be interested in reading it and seeing how it strikes me.

P.S. Why does it seem as if every writer has at least written one story about child sexual abuse? Odd!

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know, I almost didn't blog on the topic. I felt that, with other controversies of late, perhaps it would be best to avoid something so heavy.

But the thoughtful discussion I've seen of this topic has shown me I was wrong. Not that we all necessarily agree with each other, but that we think about this - that we care enough to stop and consider the consequences of our actions.

It hasn't been a rehash of well-worn points, but really, I feel like everyone has processed the sides and seriously thought about it. Which is great. It's the healthiest form of discussion out there!

Bill Cameron said...

I was trying to remember anything I've read that was hopeless, and so far, I haven't been able to come up with a title I remember.

I seem to recall that there was something of a phenomenon in speculative/science fiction side that drifted toward the "we're all doomed" theme. I know I read stories in high school (I'm thinking Omni Magazine) about things like humanity poisoning/exploding itself. I see that sort of story, while in an of itself hopeless, being in the vein of a cautionary tale. The hope isn't present in the fiction, but perhaps it will influence the reader.

For myself, I can't imagine actually writing a tale of utter hopelessness. Just doesn't fit with my own world view. That said, my current novel in progress does play with that theme in a number of characters. It's a complicated story though. For all those without hope, there are others who find it.

Flood said...

I've still been thinking on this a lot. To have negative reactions on work doesn't mean the work is bad at all. It means that the reader has come up with a new perspective.

When I read Irving's Cider House Rules, I didn't find it to have a message about abortion. I thought abortion was a device to drive the characters. I didn't see the movie, but during his acceptance speech, receiving and Oscar for Best Screenplay, he alluded to the political sentiments he wanted heard in his work.

I missed that entirely in the read.

I've written things and had feedback about good use of foreshadowing or metaphor when that wasn't my intention at all.

Good or bad, the audience will take with them what they want to see, no matter what we think we're giving them.

I think that's a good thing.

I, too, have enjoyed this discussion!

Lisa Rose-Schell said...

Interesting, Mai, I am not sure I totally agree with you either. As you know I am all for showing the hope and the ability to transform a difficulty situation. But I think that a story of despair, lacking hope or of non-redemption can be written so it is not glorifying the situation and can teach the reader how to learn from other's mistakes. I don't necessarily have to make everyone's mistakes and I can learn from someone's mistakes who does not make it and I can still have hope. It is not realistic that every one finds redemption or the way out of a horrifying situation but the fact this statement is true might drive a reader to action to better the situation and to give others a chance for redemption. I hope this doesn't sound preachy. It is not meant to be. You can always yell at me if it is. I have enjoyed reading all the comments. This a very thought provoking discussion.

Amra Pajalic said...

Thanks for your thoutful comments Mai. It's been a great experience engaging in this discussion.

mai wen said...

Hey Lisa, it's not preachy, just your opinion! I've heard a similar comment from a couple people about a story without hope letting readers learn from the characters' mistakes. This is nice in theory, but have you seen it done? I personally haven't and am not sure it would work as idealy as it sounds. If it works, that's one thing, but I truly think it would be hard for it to work that way without just ending up being almost just grotesque or depressing. I'm not sure, I guess I'd have to see it to believe it, do you have any examples that I could check out?

Love you girl, thanks for commenting!


blogger templates | Make Money Online