Home / Writings / Goals and Philosophies as an Artist

My Goals and Philosophies as an Artist

Paul Nelson

1.  What is Art

When the word Art is used as a category, it is a form of tyranny. People only use the word 'Art' as a category when they wish to exclude others. Since artists naturally resist any form of tyranny, as soon as you say: "such and such is not Art" some artist will pop up to prove you wrong.

I prefer the phrase "artistic experience". This phrase is better because it orients the discussion towards the experience itself. The artistic experience is about the event, rather than the object. It has taken the entire 20th century to kill the notion that Art is embodied in objects, a notion which all artists (consciously or unconsciously) know to be wrong. The object itself is meaningless without someone to experience it. It is just paper, ink, oil, canvas, celluloid. Put it on Mars and it might as well cease to exist.

So then, what is the artistic experience?  It is, quite simply, the communication, from one human being to another, of the experience of living.

2.  The Purpose of Artistic Expression

In order to understand this philosophy, you must understand why I believe the artistic experience is important to people and society.

So what is the purpose of the artist? To make life worth living. To intensify it. To add richness, breadth, and stereophonic reverberations to it. To make our high points higher and our low points more intense.

Art intensifies our life. Who hasn't spent the work day humming the theme to Star Wars and imagining every workplace battle with lightsabers? Who hasn't broken up with a loved one and has not heard a torch song inside our heads? Art helps us to understand our life experiences. It intensifies those experiences. It makes us see those experiences in new light. The most powerful art can change our actions, can change our futures.

3. Methods

The artist can improve our lives in several ways. First, they can create a work which makes one's life more intense for a specific period of time. Say, during the 90 minutes that you spend in a movie theater. Hopefully, those 90 minutes are more intense than 90 minutes you would normally spend doing the laundry, or shopping, or doing taxes. I guess this would be called 'entertainment'. But don't disparage this achievement! How many times have I given 90 minutes to an artist and felt that it made my life less interesting? Less intense? Less enjoyable? Too many, I'm afraid.

Also, don't discount the value of entertainment as a kind of medicine for the soul. Often I'll use the most frivolous and silly music or movies to lift me up when I'm in a deep funk, so I can go back to leading a productive life.

Second, an artist can enrich one's life over longer periods of time. He or she can do this by creating a work of such intensity that it sticks with you. It lodges itself into your brain and you dream it and it accompanies you throughout the day, the week, or the month. This colors your outlook on life, making everyday life experiences more intense. Suddenly, doing the taxes becomes a noble exercise in the democratic system. Doing the laundry becomes a titanic struggle between the forces of good and dirty. Shopping becomes a rich communal experience filled with a multitude of bizarre and immensely entertaining character actors.

Third, the artist can enrich not only your life, but also the lives of the people around you. This can be simple, for example you could point out an orchid to someone and say: "isn't that orchid just the most delicate thing you've ever seen?" If art can point out beauty to you, beauty which you might have otherwise missed, and then you pass that on to others, we see how the influence of the artist spreads from person to person throughout society.

4.  Politics and Accountability

But even more than this, suppose the artist can help one to see life as others see it? The artistic experience is, after all, the communication of the experience of living. Suppose after watching a musical I understand the life of waiters in a way that I never understood before? Certainly I will treat all waiters better, knowing what they have to deal with every day, and so I will make their lives better, less stressful, and more worth living.

Such are politically motivated artists:  Trying to make the world better by communicating what it means to be alive for those who suffer.

I think of artists as creating these ripples through society. Ripples of living. If the art is of the highest caliber, can go from person to person across time and space.

But this also means that artists must hold themselves to a very high level of accountability. What we create will live on through society. These works of art, like organisms, live in the minds of society and replicate themselves through generations and cultures. Therefore, we must make absolutely sure that our creations act as positive influences on society, enriching the lives of everyone it touches.

5.  Media Types

First, we must realize that different types of media are appropriate for different forms of experience or expression. There are certain kinds of life experiences which may be better suited for movies, theater, musicals, visual arts, sculpture, etc. This is just the way it is, and has nothing to do with the "nobility of form" or the "artwork of the future" or any of that crap. It has simply to do with various physical limitations of each media type, how they communicate, and how they filter the life experiences which are being communicated from the artist to the audience (more on filters later).

This may sound bizarre, but I believe that spectator sports, news, and automobile design (to name a few) are all forms of artistic expression. They all communicate the experience of living life. For example, when I watch a football game, I live the life of an athlete who, in peak physical condition, is locked in a titanic struggle of wits, force, and willpower. I would say, however, that a football game is probably not the best medium to communicate the life experience of an adolescent girl living under the tyrannical rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. While this is an extreme example, I believe it serves to illustrate the fact that different mediums of expression have different strengths and weaknesses of communication.

Similarly, one should realize that not everything that works in film will work in theater, and vice versa. Understanding these differences is part of knowing one's craft. Understanding and manipulating these differences, combining media types, and incorporating new technology, is how new media types are created, or how existing types are expanded. New ways of communicating is naturally interesting to all artists, as it increases the range of life experiences which can be expressed.

I do not believe that there is any inherent hierarchy of media types, and I abhor the notion that any type is somehow "better" than any other. This applies to TV, film, graphic novels, cartoons, popular song, just as much as it applies to theater, sculpture, the symphony, and oil paintings. But I do believe that each media type has certain strengths and weaknesses, in terms of flexibility, and applicability. The strength of each type should be exalted, and the weaknesses should be understood.

6.  What to Communicate

Why have art which communicates the ordinary? Art is then competing with real life, and probably losing. Rather, art must communicate the extraordinary, must communicate what we are unlikely to experience first-hand.

I have heard many artists say that they most want to make the audience "feel something".

But I submit that feelings without context are shallow, fleeting, and insignificant, whereas feelings in context can be relived and can become a part of us and a part of our life experience. Furthermore, the better the context, the more "true" it is to how we understand the world works, the more the audience can be come enthralled with the feelings. Indeed, Truth is beautiful, in that it provides the context which is most like life as we know it. Truth allows feelings and emotions to attain the highest possible resonance with our souls.

Sure, you could go to the theater and watch two people walk on stage and just scream at each other. And you might feel some of their frustration, anger, whatever. But it is fleeting, hollow, and not compelling. This is because it is not life. It is not living. The emotions have no context. Now give them a context, a context which feels like real life, like really living and then suddenly the audience is living with the characters. This is way more than simply feeling emotions, this is life.

7.  Practical Concerns

Artists have enormous handicaps to overcome, namely the distance between the artist and the audience, in terms of time and medium translation (from the mind of the artist, to paper, to the performer, to the performance space, to the sensory inputs of the audience, and into the psychology of the audience member). These translations in medium can be thought of as changing filters, which necessarily change (typically mute) the experience of living and being alive as each translation occurs. Therefore, one must create works with a solid understanding of how these translations change the experience. For example, by boosting the input to the translation, the output will become more intense and first-hand for the audience. The best artists understand this and can use their craft to calibrate the correct input to get the desired effect in the minds of the audience.

Finally, let me emphasize again that I want to create works which communicate to other human beings. This is critically important. My musicals must engage their minds and enthrall their senses to the fullest extent that I am able.

In order for this to happen, I must thoroughly understand my audience. This means taking into account a wide variety of practicalities. For example, certain venues attract certain kinds of audiences. The title and the marketing of the show will impact how an audience member will receive the work on the first listening. Readings and other types of audience focus groups will help me to gauge the reaction of my prospective experiencers.

I have no problem with aggressively exploring any of these techniques, as long as I can improve the intensity of the experience for the audience member.

But at the same time I do not want to settle for the short-term view. I wish to create works which live on over time, and this will typically mean creating works which may be more complex and have more depth than can be fully absorbed by an audience member on the first listening. In this way, I hope to reward audience members who return again and again, which, in turn, should ensure that the work lives a long and productive life in the minds of society.

8.  Sources

Most of my ideas come from Arnold Berleant, specifically his "Art and Engagement" and his "Art and the Environment." These have had a profound effect on my thinking about art.

Berleant is an intellectual descendant of Dewey, and I find much in Dewey that resonates with my feelings of Art. Much of my statement is no more than a restatement of Dewey's philosophy that "Art is an intense distillation of experience". Berleant takes the further step of connecting this to the audience.

Also I've been doing some reading about "memes," starting with Robert Aunger's "The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think." Memes are theoretical information particles that 'live' in human cultures. The emerging science of memetics provides a foundation for cultural evolution. It's this notion of being a part of something larger than myself, namely human culture as a whole, which I am also trying to communicate in my statement.