Yesterday’s Call at Call and Response was “Incomplete,” and my blogging partner Jessica wrote:
You know that feeling like something is missing? And you just can’t put your finger on it? That until you find that missing piece your life is going to feel incomplete? Yeah. I’m there — but I’m actively searching. It will probably turn up under the couch cushions. Everything seems to disappear into them at some point or another.
As I wrote in my comment to Jessica, I’ve known that feeling, but tend to think of it in different terms: more like my life was on hold, like God had pushed the pause button, and I was waiting and waiting for Him to press Play again. A great part of faith is learning to accept God’s will, learning to say, “OK. I don’t really want to be where I am right now, but it seems to be where God wants me, so I’ll try to be content with that.” That’s where I’m at. Sure, I look forward to someday, have rather nebulous thoughts about what I’d like the future to hold (nothing concrete; I don’t even like to plan a day in advance), but otherwise, I’m good. A great deal of that has to do with my journey towards becoming an artist. As of late, I’ve been studying every spare minute: practicing ovals in a sketchbook, tearing apart the art journal that dissatisfies me and starting another that I love, learning art history, reading other people’s thoughts on beauty, studying the works of my contemporaries, and — perhaps most importantly — refining and solidifying my opinions about art. Ironically, that has meant rejecting a great deal of the art I see.
This is what I’ve come up with, so far: Art should be beautiful.
What does that mean? Well, I’m still figuring that out, but it does not mean that art has to be “pretty.” I think it does mean that art should point the viewer towards the Truth (with a big T). “The Truth about what?” you ask. The Truth about life and God and beauty, but it shouldn’t do this by telling you what to think; it shouldn’t provide you with answers. It should leave you with questions, just like literature.
One of the educational philosophies that has influenced me a great deal is Thomas Jefferson Education (or Leadership Education). Among other things, it emphasizes mentors and classics. In discussing how to choose classics, Oliver DeMille, author of A Thomas Jefferson Education, categorizes books in interesting terms.
Bent Stories portray good as evil and evil as good. Many horror stories fall into this categories. These should be avoided “like the plague.”
Broken Stories accurately portray good as good and evil as evil, but evil wins. These can be difficult to read, because they don’t feel right and are far from uplifting. They can, however, be inspirational, if they spur the reader on to fix the real-world problems portrayed in the book. DeMille cites William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Marx’s Communist Manifesto as examples of broken books.
Whole Stories are ones in which all is right with the world — in the end. Evil is evil; good is good. Good wins. The Lord of the Rings readily comes to mind.
Healing Stories can be either whole or broken. Books fall into this category depending upon how they affect an individual reader. If a book profoundly moves, motivates, or changes a reader, it is a healing story. What books have proven to be healing stories for you? A Tale of Two Cities is one of mine.
A discussion of bent and broken books recently came up in an online Thomas Jefferson Education group. Interestingly, I was a lone wolf crying out against the claims of many other members. They wanted to maintain that the concept of bent books is subjective, writing that any book (The Great Gatsby came up a lot) can be whole or healing for one person, but bent for another. Pointing out that one of the first steps in a debate/discussion should be defining and agreeing upon terms, I rejected this notion. DeMille’s definition of bent books is very objective and very much tied to a book author’s intent. That doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to pick a bent book out of a crowd, but it does mean that a book is bent or it’s not. I maintain that it’s perfectly fine to reject a book that others like, but calling it bent because you do reject it is wrong. Interestingly, nobody challenged or defended my contention. They all simply ignored it. That’s OK. I actually have NO desire to be the center of attention, just a desire to share and help.
“What does any of this have to do with art?” you ask. I think that discussions of art have to include objectivity. You can create pieces of self-expression (and many do), but can these really be called art? In some cases, yes. In others, no. Am I claiming that I create art? No. I am, however, hoping to do so someday. How do I get there? By always pushing myself: to study the masters; to master the skills; to practice, practice, practice and to find the “cosmos in chaos,” as Leonard Bernstein noted, when describing what music is for him.
And that’s the thing. When I look at the “art” all around me: in “cutting-edge” web design, and the pages of magazines like Somerset Studio and Photoshop Creative, I see skill, talent, creative thinking, but I seldom see cosmos in chaos. In fact, I often find just the opposite: chaos in chaos. And when I’m presented with images that often include ugly, dark symbols of evil (images that make me question the mental health of the “artists”), I’m left with the word “Bent” pounding in my brain. Does that mean that these images are not created by talented or skilled individuals? No. Does that mean that what they’ve created is not art? Sometimes.
In this piece, Andrew Pudewa of Institute for Excellence in Writing sums it up well for me (and I encourage you to read the entire article):
Often we link the idea of artistic activity with creativity and self-expression, but here again we are infected with a modernism that actually impedes the development of skills. “If it’s creative, it’s good; if it’s good, it has to be creative,” is the dominant mantra so evident today—a tragedy so often outplayed in the fine arts departments of most universities, where the way to an A is not to draw or paint or sculpt something beautiful, but to do something that no one else has ever done before, no matter how ugly or grotesque.
This, of course, won’t work too well in music. Imagine a method of teaching where we give the student a violin and with cursory directions on how to make a sound, encourage him to “be creative” and “express himself.” The result won’t much resemble music. …
I often hear a well-meaning parent or teacher say to me, “I just want my kids to be able to express themselves in writing.” However, the truth is different: Writing is not so much about expressing oneself as it is about expressing ideas. Possibly, we may someday be fortunate enough to have an original idea worth expressing (It hasn’t happened to me yet, since I’m pretty sure every idea I’ve ever had came from somewhere else.), but until then we should practice the skill of writing the way we practice and become excellent in many skills—through imitation and repetition. …
The irony is both sad and beautiful. When originality and creativity are esteemed above all else, basic skills decrease and true artistic expression becomes impossible; however, when basic skills are taught in an appropriate and effective way, creativity flourishes.
I’ve certainly found that to be the case with me (and with my kids). If we don’t know how to do something (paint with watercolors, embroider a French knot, write a complete sentence), we’re left frustrated and unable to translate our thoughts into something solid (like a painting or a story), but if we’re given the tools and figure out how to use them, the only things standing in our way are practical matters like lack or time or resources.
Where does this all leave me? Right where I should be: asking questions, seeking answers, and working hard to draw accurate ovals.