My first exposure to contemporary writing and art came in eighth and ninth grade. I can’t remember what books we were assigned in English class (I don’t think we readCatcher in the Rye till tenth grade) but whatever they were, they were dark. The point of view was bleak and despairing.
That’s what I and my classmates came to think of as “literary.”
Movies were grim too. Dance was weird. Sculpture was industrial and monolithic. Fine art’s job, it seemed, was to mock fine art, to declare that the creation of art was impossible in an era of nuclear bombs and Cold War. Comedy was ugly then too. Four-letter words were coming in. The more avant-garde a piece was, the more disgusting its subject matter had to be.
This again was what I imagined art was. If it wasn’t repulsive or nihilistic or deliberately pointless, it wasn’t serious. An artist couldn’t seriously have a positive point of view. By definition, an artist who produced something beautiful testified only to her own state of delusion or denial. Her head was in the sand. She just didn’t get it.
I confess I still don’t have a handle on this issue. How dark is the world? God knows the news could hardly be more grisly. The human race seems hell-bent on destroying the planet, not to mention each other, as fast as it possibly can.
If you’re an artist or a writer, what do you say to this? What kind of art do you produce? What’s the point of producing art at all?
And yet …
And yet art demands to be beautiful. Even the sentences of this blog post are crying out to me as I write them: “Make us look good. Make us cohere. Make this whole piece interesting and fun and informative.”
You and I as artists are commanded to make beauty. The nature of the enterprise itself insists upon it. If we produce pure ugliness, no one will look at it.
Schindler’s List. Margin Call. Picasso’s Guernica. These pieces are examinations of the ghastliness of war and the horrors produced by hatred, of the capacity of the individual human to save his own ass and send everyone else straight to hell.
Yet these works are beautiful. Not a frame of Schindler’s List hasn’t been composed and lit with exquisite care and artistic passion. The characters in Margin Call (one of my faves) are morally despicable, yet their dialogue dazzles. And the movie looks great too. Even Guernica, depicting the slaughter of a town during the Spanish Civil War, is riveting in the rawness and audacity of its vision. It’s beautiful.
Do you know what this all means? I don’t.
But I know that you and I, whether we realize it or not, are in the business of creating beauty. Our art may depict horrors, and maybe these days that’s exactly what it should do. But those horrors must first be converted to art. And art is beauty.