What Makes Something Art?

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This has been my most popular post on Creative Juicer by a landslide for over three years. For this series, I’ve revisited this topic and updated the post with new reflections.

Like porn, many people think they simply know it when they see it. Art has a feel to it, a certain weightiness or gravity that distinguishes it.

… right?

Wrong.

Often, when people put these kinds of boundaries on art, they are talking about high art — classic forms of art like painting or sculpture. But society  left those limits behind long ago, if they ever really existed to begin with.

There is so much incredible pop art that would be easy to dismiss under this stiff, traditional definition–Banksy, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Whedon, Tarantino. The list, of course, goes on and on and on.

To my observations, there are a few different elements to what we tend to call art. And then there is those things combined, which is where we enter into actual art.

Those elements art creativity, skill, entertainment, and meaning.

1. Creativity

All art is creative, but not all creativity is art.

Creativity is innate to all of us, and unique to each of us. It helps us find new answers to questions, problem-solve, discover and imagine. We use it to pick out our clothes each morning, cook dinner, make an impromptu joke in a conversation. Whether you realize it or not, creativity is part of who you are.

Often, when someone says they are not creative, what they really mean is that they are not an artist. I hate this. Everyone is creative. To shut yourself off from that is to miss out on the richness of your being. And sadly, the more one says something, the more one believes it.

2. Skill

Skills are specific abilities that are fostered with careful, diligent practice. This includes abilities like drawing, programming, playing a sport, writing, or public speaking. Creativity enables you to imagine a beautiful picture; the skill of painting allows you to bring it to life.

It’s easy to mistake skill for art. Skill can paint an exact replica of a beautiful setting that looks artistic. Skill can bring to life an incredible musical composition. But an ability to copy exactly is still merely skill.

Another reason for the confusion is that many art courses start with the skills required to create art. My college photography course spent a lot of time discussing framing and lines. But taking a well-framed shot of a spiraling staircase doesn’t make me an artist. It means I have mastered the basic skill that sets the foundation for art.

Don’t mistake my meaning here–skill is essential to art, as is the foundational knowledge of an art form we gain from practicing skills. But to make it art, we must add our own creativity and meaning to skill.

3. Engagement

I used to call this element “Entertainment,” but I don’t feel that’s accurate anymore. Entertainment is optional to art and not always appropriate. But art must engage–otherwise its meaning never gets out.

For example, last year a movie was released called American Sniper, depicting the true story of Chris Kyle, a record-setting sniper from the Iraq war, who struggled with and overcame PTSD, and then used his experience to help many other veterans cope with PTSD, only to eventually be murdered by a veteran he was trying to help.

Many slammed the film for using the man’s story for entertainment and profit. But after seeing the film–and how it touched two Veterans and their significant others in the same theater–I didn’t feel it was exploitative, and I did feel it forced a close look at the important issue of PTSD. It didn’t entertain as much as it engaged.

But that’s not to say that entertainment is bad, or even that it isn’t art. There’s a lot of great pop/genre art out there that’s excellent entertainment, while also containing meaning that I’d label as art. I’d put shows like Game of Thrones and Younger in this category, along with satires like Family Guy.

4. Meaning

Art has to have meaning. However, that onus falls largely on the viewer, not artist.

The stereotype of modern art may be the best example to represent this divide. For one person, a square filled with a single bold color is not art–in fact it seems amateurish. But another sees great skill in the textures and methods applied, and great meaning in the resulting brush strokes, or simplicity, or boldness, or what have you.

So is it art? This is where art gets subjective. For someone who finds meaning in the work, yes, this is art. For someone else, it’s not.

It makes defining art really messy, but hey, what’s wrong with that?

Which brings us back to where we started:

Art. 

Art puts skills and creativity and engagement to work for the purpose of amassing meaning by exploring a theme, critiquing society, making a statement about human nature, or otherwise communicating an artist’s message.

Ultimately, the distinguishing element of art is intent of the artist.

The distinguishing element of art is also impact of the viewer.

Which brings us into some murky territory, since no one can know a creator’s intent unless they share it–and artists so often don’t. Also, even the artist cannot control what any individual takes away from a given work.

There’s great tension and significance in that gap in between the two. That gap is the work itself. The art is really more the gap than the physical work.

And just to make things more complicated? Just because something is art doesn’t make it good art. Many talk about art as if it were a status instead of a category, and I think a lot of confusion stems from that. An artist can say something has meaning, but it’s up to you to decide if that message has value.

At the heart of this question, is the fact that so often, art gets associated with a special status. Someone creates something, and it’s not just art, it’s Art. In our insecurity about our own creations, we feel this need to force labels to ensure we’re taken seriously. Or, when viewing others’ art, to show our own Artistic Status.

But none of these categories have any more or less value than the rest of them. You respond to what you respond to. I respond to what I respond to. Each of these is equal.

Tell me … do you agree with these categories? What do you think makes something art?


Sorry, I don’t post on Creative Juicer anymore.

If you like what you see & want more, join my author email list for updates on my writing, posts about sci-fi and fantasy pop culture, and other readerly fun by clicking here.

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How to Build a Routine for Creativity, According to the Greats

how to build a routine for creativity, according to the greatsIt’s always fascinating to get a glimpse into the secrets of the world’s most famous and creative minds. It’s why we read biographies, and memorize quotes, and make them into movies.

But one company took a different approach.

Cloud-based service company Podio recently released an infographic organizing information about the world’s leading artists through history, based on the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Turns out, great minds do not think alike. They think when they think best.

I found it through a Washington Post article by Roberto A. Ferdman, and loved the insights he provided:

Picasso worked through the night.
Then he crashed and slept from about 4-11 a.m. According to Ferdman’s article, those who burn the midnight oil tend to enjoy more divergent thinking.

The infographic also recommends that at least 12 hours away from work each day for optimal thinking, including time for zzz’s.

Kant pursued his creative work a measly hour a day.

Immanuel Kant’s routine had a small window of creative work time from 6-7 a.m. only. The rest of the day he got a solid seven hours of sleep each night, did four hours of administrative/day job work, exercised and gave himself about 12 hours of time for eating and leisure activities.

Meanwhile, Voltaire busted ass on his creative work about 16 hours each day.Can’t argue with either of their results.

Dickens blocked out two hours each day for exercise.

Whoever made the anti-jock artists stereotype was sadly mistaken. Charles Dickens got physical for two hours a day as soon as his creative work was completed, and there’s plenty of research to back him up with proof that time in the gym is good for your brain too.

Then again, plenty of others (including Benjamin Franklin) didn’t bother with physical activity in their daily routine at all.

Check out the infographic and full article here.How to Build a Routine for Creativity, According to the Greats

This infographic was especially interesting to me right now, as I find the best routine to maximize my creativity and productivity in my new work-at-home freelancing life.

And I found the key takeaway to be very comforting: It doesn’t matter what your routine is, as long as you have one that optimizes your creative power.

What’s your routine?

War as Entertainment: Ethics of “American Sniper”

“Most of America is tired of hearing about Iraq. But now, they’re at least open to being entertained by it.”

—Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq War veteran and activist, in a Variety guest column

Chris Kyle, American SniperThe statement sounds pretty harsh. But as I sat in the movie theater this weekend watching American Sniper’s tense war scenes and homefront personal struggles, I had to question myself about why I was there, and if it was okay to make real, current events into entertainment.

To relieve some of the tension you’re feeling. Rieckhoff himself says he’s okay with it: “It’s tearing open a shameful national boil of a discussion that’s been bubbling below our collective skin for far too long,” he wrote. “And with that, it performs an exceptionally important public service in a way only film can.”

Whew. Right? I’d rather piss off Michael Moore than a veteran any day.

However, there’s still a serious question in play here—is it ethical for the entertainment industry to mine horrific real-world events like wars for box office hits? It is ethical for me to hand over my money for the pleasure of partaking this kind of entertainment?

I’ve wrestled with this many times, and I’ve come to take issue with the word “entertainment” when applied to movies like American Sniper more than I take issue with the film itself.

Movies—especially popular, box-office-hit movies—blur lines. We call them entertainment, and most of the time they are. Heck, it’s the name of the entire movie-making industry.

But movies are also art. And good art does not “entertain” so much as it engages. Good art forces our eyes and minds to wrestle with things we maybe would rather not. It forces us to see things we would not see on our own, and then think about what this new thing means.

And this is something American Sniper does well. If you haven’t experienced war, if you haven’t struggled with a loved on returning from a tour, or struggled with PTSD, your eyes are forced open a little wider by this film.

So is it okay for “entertainment” to take on something “serious”? It’s not just acceptable, it’s a responsibility.

‘The Dirty Truth’: Don’t Follow Your Passion

My husband stopped my writing last weekend to read an article from Mike Rowe’s The Dirty Truth (the Dirty Jobs guy).

You can read the full article here, but the key point can be summed up with this:

“Like all bad advice, ‘Follow Your Passion’ is routinely dispensed as though its wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not.”

What does someone trying to chase a passion do with something like that? It’s all about keeping one foot on the ground while the other chases those dreams in the clouds.

Maintain a solid foundation.

If you’re only going to be happy making a living off your passion, you may want to reconsider your situation. The stereotype of the starving artist whose desperation drives their creative vision is outdated. Instead, find a way to support yourself so that you are comfortable and can sustain a happy, balanced life while you shoot for the stars.

Seek opportunities to develop.

Find a community in your area that lets you interact with others who share your passion. Take classes. Stay connected. This keeps you in touch with the industry and gives you a network of support and the outside perspective critical for growth.

Let passion spill into the rest of your life.

Just because there is a creative passion project you’re chasing, that’s no reason not to live the rest of your life passionately too. I think a lot of creative do this naturally, but it can be just as easy to see a day job as nothing but, and think you need to keep all your passion locked up for that one thing. Not so—passion breeds more passion. Share it, and it comes back to you.

In conclusion, well, I think Rowe said it best:

“Passion is too fickle to be guided by, but too important to live without – don’t let it lead you, but always take it with you.”

 

How does your passion fit into your life?

 

Obsession: Ray Bradbury

For my birthday several weeks ago, my husband got me the most incredible thing: A first edition, first print copy of The Martian Chronicles—with Ray Bradbury’s autograph inside.

The. Most. Incredible. Thing. It’s my very favorite book, even edging out Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. I simply adore Ray Bradbury, and holding this beautiful first edition in my hands nudged to me a wave of obsession.

Because here’s the thing about Ray Bradbury. He was more than the author who brought literary legitimacy to science fiction—as if that wasn’t enough. Ray Bradbury was an author’s author … and maybe even more specifically, an aspiring author’s author. Here’s why, in three quotes.

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

This quote is about practice and quantity. To write well, you must write a lot. And read a lot—Bradbury was also a great advocate for libraries. (Tweet this quote!)

“Sometimes you have to just jump out the window and grow wings on the way down.”

i don’t even consider this artist advice. I consider this a life skill. a precursor to ‘fake it til you make it.” If you want to succeed at something, you gotta have the guts to go for it. (Tweet this quote!)

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

This line is just so close to my heart. After all, life can be rough. There’s commutes, bosses, endless to-dos … not to mention the tragedies and disasters all over the world. I don’t even know if it’s possible to take it all in. But writing gives me somewhere to process, escape, and try to do something about it all. (Tweet this quote!)

These are just a few nuggets of great writing wisdom from the brilliant Ray Bradbury. He’s absolutely my number one literary hero—both for his works and how he practiced his art.

Tell me … what authors do you adore? Why?