I continually revisit questions about the nature of art and artmaking, and I’ve been pondering them a lot lately.
Although I do embrace what Mary Oliver says in her poem “The Swan” (see my post for July 31) and although the act of creating beauty both delights and satisfies me, I also must recognize that I—always, and more and more—aspire to make art that not only is beautiful but also expresses meaning—by which I mean it reveals a truth.
Here is the current version of my ever-evolving definition of artmaking, at least as it pertains to me: an act of rendering (with all that word’s wonderfully resonant connotations) objects and experiences that communicate some discovered emotional truth about the nature of life (mine specifically or life in general).
I realize that this definition doesn’t mention “beauty.” On the one hand, I could accept as a premise Keats’s “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’” On the other hand, perhaps I have been conflating “beauty” and “art.” Chekhov said, “Art tells the truth” (Picasso said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth”)—and beauty is enough because beauty is a truth—but must art be beautiful? Certainly, I do not find all art beautiful—is that because I don’t get the truth their makers have tried to express? Then again, not all truth is beautiful. I can find beauty in even many painful truths but certainly not in all.
For me, for now, the bottom line is that I have not yet wanted to create art that was not also in some way beautiful. That may be my own limitation. For now, though, I leave for another time the question of whether the art I make must be beautiful.
Thinking about expressing meaning leads me to think about language, and all the vocabularies I can use to communicate.
More than a vocabulary, each art is really a language of its own, with its own grammar and system of signs—and its own way of apprehending the world. From studying several languages (English, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese), I know how greatly concepts and perception (the roots of culture) can differ from language to language.
I speak woodturning now, and live in a world of curves. As a writer, I also speak not just English, but the specific dialect of formal written English. This second (first, third, whatever) language greatly shapes my wood art, as does Japanese. To a lesser extent, I also speak ceramics (mostly the dialect of vessels) and music (a family of languages: melody, rhythm, dance) in my art. I’m just beginning to try a few words and phrases from fiber arts (sewing, resist dyeing, weaving, papermaking) and metalworking in a few pieces.
One of the qualities I love most about English is its robustness, vigor that I attribute largely to the ease with which it assimilates concepts and vocabulary from other languages. (I suppose English—at least American English—and American culture?— is a bit like the Borg of languages: resistance is futile.) Such robustness is a quality I aspire to as an artist.