When we create something, do we automatically get to call it art? Who gets to decide? If not art, then what?
I went to a fantastic talk at Creative Mornings last week where the speaker, doctor and art curator David Candler, talked about the value of shock in art. He showed slides of powerful imagery and talked about what each piece had to offer to viewers and society as a whole. A lot of what he showed might have been considered offensive or controversial to many people, and at the very least was very moving. He argued that most of the art produced today is what he calls “neck up” art, meaning that it appeals to our sense of aesthetics, that it looks nice, but that it doesn’t impact us on a visceral level. In his opinion, anything that doesn’t evoke an emotional reaction—whether it’s shock, anger, passion, disgust, or sadness—is not art. It’s decoration.
This is something that a lot of makers struggle with. If we make something purely with the intention of bringing pleasure to ourselves and others, can it be qualified as ‘art’? Does it have as much value as work that has something deep and meaningful to say about the human condition? A friend of mine makes beautiful watercolour paintings of animals and people that inspire her, but she’s not comfortable calling herself an artist for this exact reason.
In some ways, I agree with Candler. Maybe it’s true that work like mine, which I make purely because I think it looks beautiful or interesting, is more accurately termed decoration than art. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
Elizabeth Gilbert would probably also say there’s nothing wrong with being a decorator. In her book Big Magic she talks about an interview she did with Tom Waits where she learned that he used to agonize over his creative work because he thought that for it to have any value, it needed to be deep, dark, and powerful. That is, until he watched his children creating with absolute abandon, coming up with songs and letting them go. He realized that creativity didn’t need to be this big, heavy thing. I love this quote from Waits so much: “I realized that, as a songwriter, the only thing I really do is make jewelry for the inside of other people’s minds.” Accepting that what he was making was really just decoration took the pressure off. He didn’t need to be a tortured Artist any more and could get down to playing and making what he loved.
While I think we definitely need Art with a capital ‘A’ that shocks us and makes us feel the powerful emotions that we occasionally need to feel, I think we need jewelry—for our minds or otherwise—just as much.
Quite often being pushed by powerful Art can open us up and make us stronger, better, wiser, more compassionate humans, but it’s also possible that it closes us up. Candler talked about how we can sit with these strong images and let them sink in, which I think is a beautiful practice for learning to engage with the hard things in the world. But I also think we need to be in the right mindset to receive these tough messages. If we’re already in a vulnerable place, these shocking ideas can debilitate us: when I’m feeling low and down on myself, or am inundated with the pain of the world, I seek out comforting, pretty things that soothe and inspire me. Only when I’m feel strong and happy am I expansive enough to take in the problems and the sorrows that abound and think about doing something to change them. In other words, when I’ve had my fill of beautiful things, I have the strength to stand before the shocking things and can sit through the full range of emotions that they evoke.
This is why I think that ‘decorators’ have an important role to play in society. We’re the ones that help to create a comfortable place to come home to after facing the sometimes difficult realities of everyday life, a place to rest and regroup and fight off the existential sadness that might overtake us if we spend too much time dwelling on the world’s problems. Decorations remind us that we are the lucky ones in this world: we have all our needs met and have the resources to expand and create our own beautiful things.
Decorations; “jewelry for the mind”; art with a small ‘a’: these things can help get us to that safe happy place so that we’re strong enough to take on the deeper, bigger, harder work. After her stories about Tom Waits, Gilbert goes on to say that while expressing our creativity is the most important thing we can do with our lives, it is also the least important thing, in the grand scheme of things.
“The paradox that you need to comfortably inhabit, if you wish to live a contented creative life, goes something like this: “My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).””
Living this way takes the pressure off. It lets us play and explore and see things as they are, unclouded by rules imposed by others about what has value, or meaning, and what doesn’t. Paradoxically, if we settle for being decorators, we just might find our way to making true, meaningful Art.
What do you think? Is there a difference between art and decoration? Is one more valuable than the other? Leave a comment below!