Art is supposed to make you feel.
That’s it. There you go, you just got your BA in Art for free. You’re welcome.
What? More to the story than just that?
Art also needs to make you think. It needs to make you want to look beneath the surface and find the piece’s message. It needs to make you want, even, to take those emotions and that message and examine their meaning in your own life and world.
This holds true, by the way, for everything from the greatest works of music and painting and literature to the very least ones. If it makes you feel, if it is in some way evocative of emotion and experience, it did its job.
For my fellow writers out there, that means your story has to mean something.
That is, by the way, why I despise the books that tend to dominate bestseller lists and bookstore racks — they are generally the shallowest and most meaningless of fluff. Action-adventure tales, mysteries, romances, thrillers…it is just far too common for these “beach reads” to ignore the imperative to inspire and evoke, and instead focus on simply pandering to the lowest common denominator.
I want to use a bit of an experiment here. I want to play Art Professor for a moment and set an exercise for the class. I’m posting a picture of a sculpture below. Before you read the explanation below that picture, I want you to just to study the piece and see how it makes you feel. I want you to find what the sculptor was trying to say, and what it means in your own life:
I love sculpture, by the way. I can sit and stare for a long time at a painting…but I can sit and stare all freaking day at a truly meaningful sculpture. And, yes, I did exactly that the first time I saw this piece in the Vatican Museum. I stared and thought. Thought not just about the story/myth the creator was trying to depict, but also about what he was trying to say.
That serpent, killing the father and his children…it was more than a freaking serpent, I knew. There is too much emotion in this piece — too much honesty — to be a simple depiction of a myth. I know what I felt as I stared at it that first time — and the various feelings and memories it has evoked every time I have seen it since — and that is a hell of a lot more than just curiosity at the fate of a Trojan priest at the hands of some god-sent sea serpents.
The piece itself is tucked away at the end of a short hall in the Vatican, given no real explanation or context. The first time I saw it, I knew nothing of its import or effect. I knew nothing of the inspiration it was for Michelangelo’s later works; I knew nothing of the shattering effect it had on Renaissance artists when it was dug up and put on display in Rome in 1506; I knew nothing, even, about the fact that it was the statue Pliny the Elder had so powerfully described in a work written two thousand years before (a work I had translated years earlier as part of my study of Roman history).
I just knew it hit me like a ton of bricks.
It is still one of the most powerful pieces of art I have had the privilege to experience.
Now, fellow writers, did you do your class work? Did you follow the exercise? Did you study the piece and explore what it meant?
And, for the most important question of all, did you go beyond the exercise and think about how you evoke emotion and feeling in your own work? Did you think about what those boys were thinking as they died? What the sea serpents really meant? What it all really said?
You don’t have to hit the mark, you know. You don’t have to create a masterpiece. But you do have to try. You have to try to create an emotional response, or you are just hacking out words. With a lot of my own work, I am trying to make people think about the forgotten and overlooked parts of life. Sometimes — okay, oftentimes — I am trying to bring a tear or two. Occasionally, I even want to make folks laugh.
Oh, the piece itself…it is generally called Laocoon, or more rarely Laocoon and His Sons. It depicts a story we first hear about in Virgil’s Aeneid* —although there are hints of much earlier versions — and was very likely created not long after that epic poem was written…which puts its creation somewhere in the area of 20 BC – 10 AD.
*Another book I had to read in the original Latin! Ahem.
Let’s close out with a song, shall we? Let’s go for meaningful and evocative…the “soundtrack” to the scene where I kill my favorite character. The song that has even more meaning to me from my own life: