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?


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Real-World Art-ing: 5 Luckiest Things to Happen to Me As a Writer

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Note: This post first appeared on my author blog Monstrosity earlier today. But I think these reflections on the role of luck in finding success holds true not just for writers, but for all kinds of artists and creatives, so I wanted to share it with my Juicers, too. 

Around this time of year, as I become surrounded by green for a day, I can’t help but reflect on luck.

It’s a funny thing, the way random things seem to just line up as if by magic. Sometimes you look back at something that happened to you and realize just how perfectly everything had to align for a particular something to roll your way with just the right timing.

This is how I feel about my writing career.

I feel it’s important to talk about things like luck in relation to writing. There are so many incredibly talented writers out there, and with so much competition, it can be easy for a writer to slip through the cracks and get discouraged.

But not finding your opportunity to get published does NOT mean you are less talented than any other writer. It just means that you haven’t snagged your moment of luck yet.

To show you what I mean (and in belated celebration of St. Patrick’s Day), here are my luckiest moments I’ve had in my writing career (so far):

1. My college writing internship

When I look back at my college internship, it blows my mind to think about how unlikely this was to happen, and how drastically it changed the course for my life.

I did not want to do an internship. And I especially did not want one that would force me to write. No lie. I actively fought against this at every turn.

Alas, the senior honors course I took my final semester of college required an internship. But even once I resigned myself to applying for internships, I was focused on finding editorial internships at book publishers. I only applied to be a writing intern at a local magazine as a very last resort, because I had not been accepted for anything else, and my time was running out.

Turns out that luck can often look like failure. I am so, so lucky I didn’t manage to get what I wanted for this internship.

Because before this internship, I did not believe I could write. It’s only because this internship forced me to that I even tried. And it’s only because I had an incredible mentor in the magazine’s managing editor that I learned that I could have fun and be creative with my writing. And I absolutely fell in love with it.

This writing thing opened doors that changed my entire adult life trajectory. My entire career has been built on the writing skills I discovered and the clips that I got from that internship. And then, later on, it led to an interest in fiction that’s become my hobby, my passion, and when I get frustrated with the world, my saving grace.

This thing that I dreaded and fought tooth and nail against was easily in the top five things that have ever happened to me.

2. Proximity to The Writer’s Center

About two years into my progress of writing Mud, I moved to Washington, D. C. I moved there not becuase my family is there (though they are) and not because I love the city (though I do), but because my husband got a pretty random but great work opportunity. As it happens, this put me within spitting distance of The Writer’s Center.

The Writer’s Center is among the country’s top resources for fiction writers, and offers a plethora of high-quality courses, workshops and networking opportunities for authors at all stages of their career. Naturally I quickly found a course intended for writers at my level and signed up.

In that class and others after, I met other writers in the area, was challenged creatively, and learned a ton about how the industry works and how to get published. I met successful authors who have since offered me critical advice regarding key decisions. And I’ve made wonderful friends.

In short, I could not have sought out a more perfect growth opportunity if I’d been specifically looking for it.

3. Landing the Best Critique Group

After the end of my first writing course at The Writer’s Center, I emailed the entire class asking if anyone would like to continue meeting as a critique group.

Luckily (see what I did there), there was a lot of interest. Over a few monthly meetings, the group pared down to just four of us–a great size for us to get to know each other, offer each other frequent constructive feedback, and support each other as we navigate our way through the publishing process.

I guess it makes sense to some degree, but this group offered a wonderful balance of likeminded writers who cared about investing in their writing, wanted to improve, and had publishing ambitions, while also offering a lot of diversity in genres, styles, and approaches to building a fiction-writing career.

Lucky me to land myself in this incredible group of writers.

4. Finding an Amazing Publisher

When I queried agents last summer, I was getting just enough promising responses from agents to not give up. But while I was getting interest, no one was biting. Then I stumbled onto a little Twitter event for writers called #adpit, which connected authors, agents and publishers on a website and backed it up with 140-character mini-pitches on Twitter. I thought, what the heck, it’s a few hours of my time, and who knows.

That’s where City Owl Press found me.

I’ll be honest, I was dubious at first–there are a lot of groups out there preying on aspiring authors under the guise of “small press,” and my first response to the editor’s outreach was Groucho Marx’ famous quote, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” In other words, if this press is so exciting about my little book, it’s probably not very good.

But I researched them anyway, and even reached out to some pros I know who could lend some perspective. They were young and somewhat untested, but the team not only had a strong track record, but also were incredibly open and patient with me as I asked a number of intrusive questions, weighed options, and got a lawyer to review the contract. All good signs.

So I went for it. After all, I figured, even if it turned out to be a disaster, it would be a huge learning experience, and hey, who knows.

The people at City Owl have been nothing but wonderful since day one, always willing to offer sound advice, to hop on the phone and time I have questions, and give me their quick attention any time I ask for it. On top of that, they’ve gone above and beyond what I’ve heard to be “standard” at major publishers when it comes to investing me as an author–they actively sought out my input on my book cover, and showed me a strong marketing plan for my book without even being asked. These guys are just champs.

I knew this step was a gamble going in, but it was one I was willing to take. So far it’s met all of my highest hopes. You just can’t get luckier than that.

5. Financial Stability

About a year ago I read an article from an author about how socioeconomic status played a huge role in one’s ability to have a career as an artist, and why it was so important to bring this hush-hush topic to light. I wish I could link to it, but I can’t find it anymore. But that author was right, so I’m going to do my part and talk about it now.

I’ve been financially comfortable my entire life. This is incredibly lucky just in general, but it’s played a huge role in my ability to write. In college, I didn’t have to rack up debt or work a job, which is how I was able to take a low-paying internship in the first place. In D.C., I had the free spending money necessary to take part in The Writer’s Center opportunities. And the free time and energy necessary to write every day, and contribute to a writing group. And the freedom to be able to take a risk with a small press I didn’t know.

In a way, being lucky enough to be financially well-off my entire life has been the essential foundation to all my writing success. We need to have our eyes wide open when it comes to the utter disadvantage this gives to less fortunate artists, and societally, support changes that afford opportunities for artists of all kinds.

Luck Doesn’t Knock Twice–Be Ready for It

There’s no denying the large amounts of luck that have played into my writing success so far, and I’m sure that will continue to be the case. Don’t think I ever forget it for a second.

But if you’re out there feeling like you’re helpless until your dose of luck drops into your lap, here’s a bit of good news. There’s a lot you can do to be ready for luck when it comes your way. All the advantages in the world can’t help you if you’re not willing to put butt in chair and do the writing, or listen to feedback, or take the risks. But if you put in the work in good faith, contribute to the writing community near you, and keep your eyes open, it’s eventually going to come your way.

Go out and actively look for those lucky moments, and I’m confident you’ll find yours, too.


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Real-World Art-ing: Saturday Inspiration

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A little Saturday inspiration for you. Enjoy your weekend!SatInsp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Real-Life Art-ing: Saturday Inspiration

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A little inspiration for your weekend!

picasso


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Real-World Art-ing: Do Something

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You know you’ve got a book in you. Or a painting. Or a song. Or some other kind of art. You know it’s in there, because you can feel it in there, kicking around in your soul.

I know the feeling–kind of antsy, kind of inspiration-y. But also a little self-doubt-y.

Because those feelings of inspiration are often quickly followed by that little voice. You know him–he tells you that you don’t have time right now, that it’s selfish to go off on your own to be creative, that this isn’t the right time, but maybe in a few months …

Yeah. Don’t listen to that voice. Don’t put off your desire to create. Do something.

Even if it’s just a little bit.

There is always a reason to take a pass on art. There’s never, ever enough time. You have to make the time. And if you make the time for art enough times, that’s when it starts to add up to something.

It’s not about starting and finishing an entire work in one month, one week, one day. It’s about giving it that 1 percent of effort that you can, over and over and over again.

So don’t listen to that little voice. Make room for the inspiration. Show up, and do something, even if it’s just a little bit. Believe me, it adds up, if you just give it the time.


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

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