monday, april 14, 2008
Ellen Dissanayake

I was recently recommended to read a chapter from Ellen Dissanayake’s Book, Homo Aestheticus, entitled Does “Writing Erase Art?” In it, the author contributes a very compelling definition of art. She states that art is “to make something important special.”  She demonstrates her theory in her own writing. The most interesting (and artistic) parts of this piece are the parts where she talks about her own children and things in the natural world that she observes with a mixture of detachment, fascination and gratitude. Her children are important to her and she ‘makes special’ that experience by observing and describing her observations in words. These are the moments which seems to come alive in this piece, and also set the work apart from a lot of the other critical theory to which I have been exposed. This theory starts to be about something bigger than itself. The author seems to care deeply about certain things that are out there in the world. She substantiates her particular definition of art, not by citing examples of what others have said about art, but by giving examples from life that are concrete and common to our human experience.
 
Dissanayake challenges most of western culture for its lopsided emphasis on the left-brained, the analytical, the literary. She challenges the theorists whose scope is strictly limited to making texts about texts; those philosophers who use words to box themselves into absurd and unsustainable philosophical conclusions (i.e. postmodernism), often with a sense of ‘smug self satisfaction.’
 
In my view, artists themselves have become preoccupied with how their work will “read,” scrambling to buy into this elite literary chess game that 99%  percent of the world is excluded from (excluded not because they are illiterate but because they do not belong to the intelligentsia, are not published and have no reputation in the art world). This hyper self-consciousness and status seeking tendency in art is off-putting and limiting. Artist at one time cared about things in the world, and sought to express this care in the work that they did, now they seem to care most about the art-world and tend to express this care by creating work that will be viewed as an opportunity for literary comment.
 
If only a tiny portion of humanity is participating in the art-literary game, then what is the rest of the world doing? They are raising children, mainly; working and providing for their offspring… making things, making things up, talking and sharing their experiences with each other.
 
Does that mean art is selfish? Once I was sharing something about myself with one of my professors which was very personal. That lead into a discussion about faith and spirituality and other things like that. He asked, “well, how do explain your choice to be an artist, how do you reconcile that kind of competitive, self-centered existence with the philosophy of love and service that you espouse?” That question has been a real burden for me at times. But lately I’ve come to believe that making art ought not to be a selfish act any more than making a meal. Its something I can do in order to give and share a part of myself with others—even if its just the investment of my time. I agree with the author that it is a natural and necessary part of human existence and should be encouraged. Why should one feel guilty, selfish or elitist to about choosing to pour out my concentration and love into ‘making things special’? It’s a good thing to do with ones time and energy.
 
Many of us have believed the dogma of ‘art for art’s sake’. Many of us artists have felt the elitist rush attached the idea that we are doing something that very few would ever dream of doing because it serves no utilitarian purpose. Art with a capital ‘A’ is never supposed to serve anything but itself, right? But most contemporary art does get created in order to serve something—it’s made to be reviewed, critiqued and written about. The conceit that ‘real art’ has no utility is a false one. Art can and must serve. It would hardly exist in our capitalist culture if it didn’t. The question is whom or what does it serve?
 
I am currently reading a book about the writing process. The author, Peter Elbow, an English professor at Evergreen State College, gives a very candid confession of the importance of “sharing”. He says that he was embarrassed to admit that for many years in academia the only motivation he ever had for producing a piece of writing was to have it reviewed, criticized and evaluated. He says that he only presently has begun to stop being an academic and start being a writer because he has begun to make work for the sole purpose of ‘giving it’. He says that he used to struggle with making his thoughts convoluted, complicated and inaccessible because something inside him really did not want to just give. As an academic, he knew that it was going to be received critically, and believed that his only purpose in writing was to create something that could be commented on in a critical, analytical way. This is not unlike the self consciousness that the Dissanayake describes about the contemporary post modern artist. We are limiting ourselves by making work that is little more than an occasion for further discussion in the literary arena.
 
I used to think that art would save my soul somehow--that it would prove my worth as a person. I was driven in such a way that I told myself it was the most important thing in my life. But that’s not true today. Life is more important. Art is just something I do. More often than not, I have to think of giving it, of doing something for someone besides my self, besides just putting something out there to collect criticism or evaluation to feed my ego. I can’t do it to score points anymore. It wants to be shared and given as one gives of concentration, energy and love. Art is as good as anything else to give. It’s as good as baking pie or telling someone a funny story. I guess, according to Dissanayake, that makes me a mere human.
 


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