I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about art: how art can be defined, what its possible purposes are, what I am trying to accomplish personally as an artist. This exploration began many years ago when I was a student musician: a singer, a songwriter, and a composer.
In my music program, we spent a year on music theory that looks beyond the standard Western tonal palette. Our curriculum began with late 19th century composers like Wagner and Debussy, which I very much enjoyed studying, and then progressed to atonalism, serialism, and other 20th century classical music (including John Cage, Philip Glass, etc.). We also spent a quarter studying 20th century music history.
After I finished this course of study, I went on to take a few composition classes and seminars and began to consider more seriously the question of why. Why do so many cultures include music as an integral component? Why do so many of us like to listen to and/or produce music? What was I trying to achieve with the music I was writing?
The answer, I decided at the time (and it still holds true for me), is communication. Music is a way of communicating to others; of evoking a response, often emotional; of taking something we’re familiar with and translating it into something new, or of exposing us to something new that is outside our own frame of reference. Music can tell a story, something that happens especially frequently in vocal music (my other focus at school) but can also happen in purely instrumental music (listen to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for an excellent example of programme music). Music can make us feel a certain way: when I’m watching a suspenseful TV show, it’s often the music that makes me jumpy before anything has even happened on-screen. Music can share universal experiences or distill unique experiences in a way that are more relatable. One of the reasons I adore musical theater as much as I do is because it combines the dramatic potentials of theater with the emotional resonance of music, while remaining accessible to a more general audience than opera often does.
Unfortunately a lot of the music composed in academia, the new Classical music of the 20th century, didn’t seem to me to be very accessible at all. In fact, at the time it baffled me because the goal of communication often seemed very absent from it. Indeed, serialism in particular seemed like a game played with numbers that had very little to do with actual sounds at all. I realize now that I wasn’t seeing the complete picture; I believe even the most experimental pieces were trying to communicate. The problem, for me, was that they were communicating with only a select group of people who were educated enough in music to be able to understand them. I was in that group, yes, but what about everyone else? Imagine the equivalent of throwing out an old common language and writing in a new language; you will only be able to communicate with the select group also versed in the new language. So what we are talking about then is the question of audience. If art is communication, then considering a given piece of art’s intended audience becomes very important.
I also approach writing as art, and therefore as an act of communication. But in pursuing that line of thinking, I realized there are many forms that written art can take. We have the obvious: novels, short stories, plays, poems. But we also have the slightly less obvious (at least to me): letters, blogs, Google+/Twitter/Facebook. Am I saying everyone’s Facebook account is art? I’m not sure if I’d go quite that far (although feel free to make a case for it in the comments). I’m saying it can be art; it has the potential to be art. I’ve certainly created art through letters/emails, in which I create an idea, a vision of who I am and what my life story is. And then on the flip side there are the banal and mundane emails that are just a recital of facts or a quick way to make plans.
I’m in love with this great art project, in which a photographer traveled around the country taking photos of people’s refrigerators. I think about this project all the time because I am just blown away by the coolness of it, showing the stories of these random people through one photo. To me, this is art—it turns my assumptions around, it evokes emotion in me, it causes me to see the world around me in a different way.
So then is this blog art? It certainly tries to do those same things. Some of you will think I’m being pretentious by labeling my blog as art, but isn’t it interesting to think about? I like to think of each essay being a small piece of a greater mosaic—I wonder what it will look like when it is complete. I wonder what picture I will have created. I get excited just thinking about it.
What is art? Is it in the eye of the beholder, the creator, or both? Is it about intention or execution? What does art mean to you?