Art: the “Otherwise Unimageable”

When people say art can’t save us, I tell them they are wrong. And when we look into the chaos and the unconnected reality around us, art can bring back purpose and meaning to our lives. Art (well done) reminds us of the possibilities and the connections. I read novels and collections of poetry all the time. Does it save me? Sometimes. There is nothing more empowering than seeing that actions have consequences, that love might conquer, or that good can fight evil. But it may be near impossible to find it in in real life. And the right book at the right time can actually create a firestorm of creativity in me that produces books, concepts, plots, and a sense of artistry.

The intent of literature and good storytelling isn’t to replace real emotional connections. Emotions are constantly shifting, developing, and changing. But art is meant to reflect life in the creation of an art form; a novel, poem, or painting. In The Value of Literature: Knowledge and Imagination, Adrian Camilleri explains that art isn’t to compare emotional moments in literature to your emotional reality, but that “poetry make[s] it possible for us to image abstraction notions that are otherwise unimaginable.” Literature is not meant to discredit our real emotional reaction to the world, but reveal (through metaphors and figurative language) things we didn’t know before. Fiction is not meant to be factual, it is meant to explain universal truths and discover new ones.  

Why are we reading novels if we don’t want to see the world in a different way? The simple answer is life is random, and art is focused and purposeful. Novels, poetry, paintings, music, and other forms of art innovate new connections, new ways of seeing the world. If we continue to develop human understanding and empathy — we are doing more than just reading good stories (entertainment), we are understanding their emotional value, their aesthetic value, and eventually we have to decide their artistic value. As writers, it is plunging into a deeper level. Writers must internalize our stories and then bring them to life on the page.

I don’t think you should think about Kafka turning his character into a bug as an enhancement on your vision of the world. But there is something to consider there. Kafka’s vision was strange, but the flexibility of your creativity and your suspension of disbelief will certainly serve you well. English majors and writers are not optimists who want happy endings. They are the writers struggling with ideas, struggling to see the world and understand it, struggle to show you that same vision of the world. They are writers who see a dystopian world (Atwood and the Hand Maid’s Tale) and the depth of darkness (Stephen King) as much as light and possibility. Art isn’t a replacement for reality, it is a tool for the examination of ideas, connective ideas, and perhaps as Camilleri mentions things “otherwise unimaginable.” It is the depth of art where we refine an aesthetic for art as a pathway to empathy, vision, and the spark of new ideas. When the circuit is complete, the new ideas become books, plays, songs, and pushback on the crush of chaos and darkness.  

In his paper, Camilleri also mentions that most people feel that when a reader completes a book or sees a concept from an artist that their is a transference of the exact idea from writer to reader. For example, we understand exactly what Kafka was explaining about his family, his father, and alienation in society when we read The Metamophosis. Of course we know that isn’t true. In fact, the reader may come up with a personalized meaning removed from the meaning intended by the writer, painter, or musician. Does that mean the art has been misinterpreted? Does that mean the reader isn’t smart enough? Does that mean that artist has failed? Of course not. It means that art at this level isn’t static, it isn’t a transactional widget. The innovation of language is creating something new in the reading and vision of the work to those who consume it. Figurative language has that power — it has the power to change the way we see art. It isn’t for the writer or painter to dictate its relevance – but to give opportunities for changing the way we see the world, innovating through metaphor, building (in poetry for example) an experience with refined words and symbols, creating a possibility an entire house through a plot that examines each room. And these artifacts of creativity will become new. Reading a novel is about all the elements we know in craft workshops, i.e. character, dialogue, scene, plot, setting — but they are also about the subjective way in which we see those relational metaphors being used. There is a reason one person likes this writer over that one — because of their relationship to the way they see the world. If it connects, the reader will understand and build on the writer’s vision. If they don’t — it isn’t a loss, as much as a preference.

In our world of instant reviews and leaving “customer feedback” it can disheartening to see works of art reduced to “loved it” or “hated it” — not because those feelings aren’t important. But behind those comments are the specifics of why which are often not added to comments, reviews, and feedback. It is important to have a reaction to art because it can be life-changing to read and novel and have it effect your for a long time. But when we don’t connect, it is important to understand why. It is a skill that we need to continue to foster and value. It is fine that a book as five stars but specifically why? Can we pull that out of the reviews? Sometimes, but maybe it is just the way it connected with the readers, maybe it is the language, or the style, or the way the writer or painter made them feel. It is important to foster the ability to explain how one metaphor missed one person and changed the lives of another. It is important to think about how hard it is to write a scene, and have it mean something different when a reader reads it. It is important to let art work for people and become their own experience. As a writer, I see writers talking about their experience and their routines to be creative. It doesn’t matter when it is a book or a poem. It doesn’t matter when someone experiences it in a way you can’t imagine. What is on the page is the connection, not how long it took you to write a chapter, or the routine you have to begin writing. Art will change people — but probably not in the way you think or even understand. This is a lesson that is only coming to me now. — #

 Camilleri, Adrian. “The Value of Literature: Knowledge and Imagination.” (2017).

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