Art Class

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?

*sigh*

Fine.

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:

Another Titan is Gone

A conversation came up a few days ago, one about old-school comedians and those who have truly stood the test of time. Now, that conversation may have simply faded into the background, never to be remarked upon nor even remembered, had the real world, and yet another death, not intruded.

Aretha Franklin was one of the all-time great talents. There is no limiting her to a specific genre or style, no limiting her to “great female performer” or “great black performer.” She was great. Period. Full stop. She was a performer whose impact and legacy will rightfully be felt long, long after her passing.

This post started solely as a tribute to Ms Franklin, and a recognition of her passing, but then the little wheels of my brain started turning. I started to think about the all-time greats, about those who will truly live on past their deaths, and about how far above the rest they truly stand.

Whether singer, painter, writer, or any other form of artist, the ultimate achievement to which we can aspire is to leave behind something that matters.* Aretha’s position in history is solid and secure because of her influence, and the works she has left behind, but how many others can honestly make that claim?

*As ever, there’s a song for that: Chuck Ragan’s “What We Leave Behind.”

How many singers today will have their music and talent live on for decades, if not centuries? How many writers, or actors, or — indeed — comedians, will influence those who follow anywhere near as much as Aretha Franklin?

Two decades ago, Jerry Seinfeld was praised as the greatest comedian of the age. Today, how many truly look to his show, or his performances, as one of the greats? How many would honestly rank that show with M*A*S*H? Or Seinfeld himself with someone like Bob Hope?

As I mentioned in the intro, Aretha’s death brought back to me that conversation I had about comedians — and about what, and who, we consider great. What sit-com or show today can stand against Monty Python’s Flying Circus? When I look back, there really are only a handful of shows on that short list: I love Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Cheers…

Whether or not you were even alive when those were made, they stand the test of time. I know kids and young teens today who still crack-up at the Three Stooges, and who would rather watch them than anything on TV or NetFlix.

You can make that list for just about anything, by the way. You can make it for actors, or for writers, or directors or painters…or for singers.

I may have my current fixation and passion for bluegrass- and folk-influenced rock, yes, but not even my favorites can stand up against the true greats. Gaslight Anthem versus Aretha Franklin? Mumford & Sons versus Billie Holiday? Chuck Ragan versus Otis Redding? The Avett Brothers versus Robert Johnson? Those aren’t even contests.

In honor of Aretha Franklin, then, and the other titans we have lost, take some time over the next few days and weeks to return to the works of those you consider truly great. Listen to their albums, watch their movies, read their books…

If, as Chuck Ragan said in the song I linked, “all we are is what leave behind,” then those few are the best of us. Return to them, not just to learn but also to enjoy…and to acknowledge true greatness.

IMG_0720And, as a final thought: Rest In Peace, Aretha.  All the respect in the world is yours…