In the Beginning, There was Art

In response to Masha, Beyond Boys and Girls, and Mr. Pond, The Birds and the Books

After all three of our posts and some discussion in comment boxes, I feel as though we've hashed out the question of male and female imbalances in literature as much as I wish to for now. It was a good discussion, but the question itself doesn't interest me much; I enjoy gender, as part of life and (therefore) story, and too much of politics can kill the delight in anything. So I'll move on, happily, to the next question, which Mr. Pond helped set me up for with this little bit of wisecrackery:
"If you can lock two literary critics in a room without them finding some point of disagreement within ten minutes, then run screaming to the Ghost Busters—it’s a doppelganger."
That made me laugh. It's just so true. But in giving my own opinion on this week's topic—the need for an objective baseline for Art, and what that should be—I'll have to step back, even from the concept of whether any two critics could agree on the placement of such a baseline. Way back. As in, to the beginning.

In John chapter 1 in the Bible, the creative principle is described as 'the Word', the famed Logos:
"something said (including the thought); by impl. a topic (subject of discourse), also reasoning (the mental faculty) or motive; by extens. a computation; spec. (with the art. in John) the Divine Expression (i.e. Christ)"—Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men."—John 1:1,3-4, NASB

Now, before I go any further: The majority of this is thanks to my having spent the day with my mother, an artist, who had a lot to say on the subject when I told her I needed ideas for this blog post. She helped confirm my thoughts against a distinction between Literature with a capital L and entertainment/craft/schlock that supposedly doesn't count as Art.

Because I believe that the objective baseline for art is communication. Wherever we communicate, the creative principle is there. God may not be, of course. But our inherited ability to put available words to the expression of our ideas is present in everything from the illiterate troll comments on YouTube to Shakespeare, just as the refrigerator-framed drawings by a child come from the same source that gave us Raphael.

Are those troll comments and mighty works of crayon, then, art? Yes, in the most basic sense. Are they good art? Do I even have to ask? There is great art, and there is good art, and there is weak or flawed art, and there is plain old bad art, and I think we can agree to some extent on those definitions. But I don't draw a line on my bookshelf between Jane Austen and John Grisham and say of the latter, with a shake of my head, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

[Dear God, can I please write books that sell as well as John Grisham's? And that people can love as I love The Testament? Please.]

As a writer, I look at the two successful authors and say "Jane's objectively a better artist, at least in most ways. From her, I learn about portraying subtlety of human interaction. But from John, I learn more about pacing."

Now, there's a place for searching out the best art, the kind that Masha means when she says "In good writing, as in any other art, the intimate and the universal come together..." There's a place for learning the difference between good prose and bad prose. There's a place for choosing literature that offers the mind more than a cheap-joke sitcom could.

In searching out things to read, I look for the intimate and the universal. I look for a good surface narrative with hidden depths of thought. I look for beauty anywhere I can find it. But most of all, I look for something that speaks to me. Because as Mr. Pond says,
"What makes literature great, irrespective of gender, is what George MacDonald called ‘sympathy’—the ability to identify with another creature, and share in their experience of hope and of suffering."
That is good communication. And the best of literature communicates sympathy on the level of the sighs too deep for words.


  1. Interesting post (again!), Jenna. That is, of course, the concise definition of logos...Kittel's definition runs, I think, a good hundred pages... :D

    I'm not at all sure or easy about the equation that Communication = Art. Or that Use of Language = Literature. It strikes me as too reductive, because as you say yourself, there is a difference between Austen and Grisham, that is more than merely epoch or gender. I'm tempted to say that Grisham is an outstandingly good bad novelist...but that has implications all its own...

    Help me to make sure I'm understanding you correctly--is the equation above what you're arguing for? That when communication happens, there art is? Or would you distinguish between communication (which, though valid in its own right, may be devoid of beauty and sympathy and good sense) and Art (the beautiful, the masterful, the sublime)?

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post. I want to read it again before really commenting, and I want to read your reply to Mr. Pond as well. I'm amused that you're so completely Done with the male/female discussion, and I'm generally in a wonderful mood. Thanks for giving such a great start to my day!

  3. So, having reread, and spent my morning enjoying summertime in the city (I'm in town All day today), I'm back to comment (actually question) a few points in your post. :)

    Like Mr. Pond, I read the above as saying, where communication is, art is also. If I'm right in my reading, then you don't see beauty as in any way necessary to Art - a part of Good art, maybe, but not a part of art, which makes the idea of "good art" sort of uncomfortably vague for me. Am I right in my reading?

    Also, if all communication is art, is objectively evil communication included in that. For example, if I made a doll of you, with evil intentions, using it to communicate all my curses onto you, sticking it with pins and burying it behind your house. If it succeeds in it's purpose: the communication of evil intentions, is it then, Art? Are blasphemies art?

    And then, if something, say a "troll comment" on Youtube, fails to communicate as the writer intends. If he means to make a statement and ends up being either completely misunderstood, or completely incomprehensible, is it still art? Or does it fail to reach the level of art, by failing to communicate?

    I'm looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts, and it was interesting to have your mom's brought in as well. This discussion is becoming such a little family event! :)

  4. Mr. Pond, I'm afraid Kittel's definition wouldn't have fit into my blog-post. :P

    A couple of things. First, to hopefully help clarify: I am actually arguing against what seems to me a false dichotomy between a roped-off land of accepted Art and the rest of creative output. Masha, this works in response to you, too. I think beauty, mastery of skill, and sublimity are goals of the best art, not a standard by which to reject as uncanonical anything that doesn't measure up in the opinion of a professorly conclave--especially if that's done in disregard of the work's innate truth or its power over the populace.

    The Bible is literature, the cornerstone of literature in the West even though it came rather from the East, and it isn't all the Song of Solomon. There are letters in there, not all of which were written in the highest vernacular.

    I have read bad novelists, but I don't think Grisham is one. I think he writes plain commercial fiction that is well-paced and entertaining at the least, and it's more than that when he really gets into character apotheosis. That doesn't seem deserving of the label 'bad' to me. The difference between him and Jane Austen is, in my opinion, simply Austen's unique skills for wit, sly observation and social commentary. Her goals, whether intentional or not, reach higher than his. But I put them on separate rungs of the same ladder, not in different boxes.

    Masha, your voodoo doll is, quite literally, Dark Art. I would call blasphemy by that name, too.

    Human artists on all levels fail to communicate what they desired to, and the art therefore fails--sometimes partially, sometimes wholly, but it seems to me that the torn sheet of paper in an artist's wastebin can reasonably be called failed art.

  5. Thanks for the explanation, Jenna. My Grisham example was on a simplistic good/bad dichotomy, with the 'bad' ranging for the sludge pile to (probably) Grisham, and the 'good' rangind approximately from (arguably) King to Tolstoy. Mind-bogglingly banal and reductive, I know! It would be better to argue for Grisham as being a superb practitioner of the penny dreadful. He's not really trying to write in the same medium as Tolstoy, really. But we're tangled up with using the obnoxiously vague term 'novel' for both War and Peace and The Appeal. There's something seriously wrong with that.

    In re the terminology discussion, I wonder if you're arguing less that anything that is, is art, and more against the idea of a literary canon? (For which, read this.) Not that we can't or shouldn't distinguish between Grisham, Austen, and the YouTube trolls, but that we shouldn't of necessity dismiss Grisham as non-art solely on the basis that he has been added to the list?

    In which case, there are probably two meanings to 'art' floating around. In elementary 'art class' for instance, you're not really learning how to draw masterworks. What's produced is 'art' in the sense that it expresses something the creator of the piece intended, and uses a certain medium to do so. It is not 'Art' in the sense of the undisputed apex of the medium, in the sense of revealing (platonic) Beauty or the (Kantian) sublime. But we recognize it as a being part or literature or visual art--a continuum, as it were.

    Well, I think I'm finding my reply post...Am I making sense or off my chump again? :D

  6. I venture to post here all while trembling in my boots a bit, because this conversation is so high above my understanding of literary critique. My single contribution here is that art depends not only on the artist but also on the viewer. I don't mean to sound cliche with a 'beauty is in the eye...' statement, but any mother can tell you that the product of an elementary art class can touch a place in you that Michelangelo with all of his incredible ability never did reach. Therefore, I must draw the conclusion that art is attained when the artist and the viewer connect on a personal, meaningful, and intangible level. This relationship can happen whether the artist is a child or God Himself.

  7. Jenna,

    Dark "Art" is just what they call it to make it palatable..:) it could never be art, really because it fails to create, it only destroys, just as Satan, who is no artist, can only destroy. (now, that sounds like I asked the question at first - expecting your reply - just to "trap" you with a snotty reply! I didn't I really didn't expect your reply to allow demonism into art. What do you think, is creation not an essential part of Art?)

    I would disagree about the second part as well, if an artist fails, it is because he has not managed to create art. I guess I'm just disturbed at the relativism which allows all things, even those without any redeeming characteristics (except existence) to fall under "art". It ends up appearing to negate the entire meaning of the definition (art) and to destroy any really opportunity to judge within the definition.

    But now I've posted my response..so I hope my reading of yours and your comments wasn't far off, and I'm really looking forward to reading your thoughts. :) It was written with a good deal of enthusiasm and way too many quotes. :) Thanks to the heat, I've spent way more time online than I should have, and since tomorrow is supposed to be Worse, I'll probably be back to read and comment even more!

    Blessed Almost Pentecost!

  8. Hmm. Let me try again. :)

    What I'm primarily objecting to is a concept of art that includes Austen and excludes Grisham, since we're dealing with those examples. Mr. Pond, I doubt I'm comfortable with Harold Bloom's idea of a literary canon, though I do think--great link, by the way--that shared text is very important, therefore a loosely defined 'canon' of works that, generally, 'everybody' has read is a good thing. Not, however, when it excludes as non-literature everything outside the canon.

    So, as that implies, I do rather dislike the idea of using Art as a term to equal Masterwork. It seems to me unfair to the hard work and creativity of those who make things that ordinary people can enjoy.

    As Beth points out, the virtue of art is in its reception as well as its creation. I'm not thus far a mother, but maybe someday a kindergartner's piece will move me to tears as the Pieta did. But in the meantime, I've wept over both classics and penny dreadfuls, and I am not at all prepared to consider either as less than art. Both are very much the products of real creative work from mind and heart.

    Masha, you used the word 'made,' as in 'if I made a voodoo doll.' Made implies creation. I think you and I might have our first actual, solid disagreement here: I see our creative powers as--while a good gift from God--morally neutral in operation, subject to the good and evil of our intentions. So no, it's not beyond my power to imagine destructive and/or unbeautiful art. You seem to see beauty as the hard baseline, with creativity relevant only insofar as it produces beauty, and communication somewhat relevant at best. Which is fine, even though I disagree. :) But perhaps we're defining two different terms that both go by the name Art, rather like what happens when people start trying to define Love.

    As for communication, that itself is an art form in my opinion.

    I don't see this as relativism, because I'm not ruling out the possibility of an absolute standard for what is good. Works of art are accomplished according to some sort of form--a novel or a poem, the arrangement of flowers in a vase or a garden, an entree or an hors d'oeuvre. Without standards, there is no form; without form, there is no meaning; without meaning, there is no communication. Even a YouTube comment is subject to some form, and we can all agree that the trolls fail to meet the proper standards.

    Clearer? I'm feeling rather brain dead tonight, so my communication may be a failed art right about now.

  9. I think you're right. A definite disagreement. :)

    But creativity and beauty go hand in hand. "Making" is not the same as "creating." Creating, as I'm using the term, refers to tapping into the divine nature. Only God can Truly Create, and when we create we tape into the Divine nature, allow our experiences to gestate and, in a sense, birth as art. "Making" is different, it involves no tapping into the Divine image and likeness. It can be incorporated into creation, but it can exist without creation as well, even monkeys "make" tools for themselves, but they are in no way 'creating'.

    So in that sense I see creativity as an aspect of the good, an essential aspect of art, with communication as another essential, not as only somewhat relevent, but not as The Essential: the baseline above which all is art, which is what I read as your opinion.

    I agree though, that it isn't a "fair" standard, but in the same way that it isn't really "fair" that my vocation can never be Holy Orders, or a career in Higher Math, as John Paul II said, "beauty is the vocation bestowed on [the artist] by the Creator." We are not all artists in the proper sense, we don't all create art. That doesn't mean that our communications aren't valid and good, it doesn't mean we have no right to make enjoyable things, it simply means that not everything we make is art.

    Words can be frustrating though, I hope I'm not building up a wall with mine..and I feel the "brain-dead" issue as well - 100 degree weather doesn't help Anyone to think clearly. :) I know the definitions of make and create that I'm working from aren't universal in this sense, Kathleen Norris refuses to use creation imagery in her discussion of art, she uses something else, but I tried to be clear, and explain my terminology at least. English is sometimes frustrating..but then, every language is, and we aren't exactly in an age of clear definitions. :)

    I try to go deeper in my post. I hope that clarifies somewhat as well..and then there's always Mr. Pond..I'm really looking forward to reading his thoughts.

    Ooh, and I'd agree that communication (done well) is "an art" but in the "exercise of a human skill" sense, which I guess would cover occultism as well. But that's the problem with the word..which definition are we working from, if it's just that definition, than anyting not purely instinctual counts. If we're using it, as I was, as "the creation of works of beauty or other special significance" than it limits and requires judgement. So, maybe it is definition?

  10. I mean..maybe the disagreement is in the definition. That wasn't clear at all.


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