Michaeline: What does art do for us?

A man holding a giant sprig of dill seed while flying on a griffin that is carrying some sort of prey, and there's another man-sized bird on the dill.

What does art do for us? (Detail from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I came across a transcript of a lecture that Brian Eno gave. http://speakola.com/arts/brian-eno-john-peel-lecture-2015

Eno says (well, I read between the lines of Eno’s speech and understand) that people spend a lot of time embellishing the basics of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You know, the one where the base of our need pyramid is largely physiological. Air, food, water, clothing, shelter and sometimes sexual competition.

I can see it all around me. It’s not just food – it’s avocado toast or the miracle of technology that is a tuna casserole in the middle of Nebraska. It’s not just shelter – it’s Versailles, or a tiny hermitage. (YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXpDPekGB3Q3:25 Crow’s Hermitage, by Tiny House Lover) It’s not just clothing, it’s a Bob Mackie gown, or it’s a store-bought pair of jeans that have been repurposed into a waistcoat (and bespangled with recycled buttons). And it’s not just sex, it’s rule 34 of the internet: if you can imagine it, there’s porn of it online. Anyway, I whole-heartedly concur with Eno that we spend a lot of our lives making and consuming art daily, even if we don’t consider ourselves artists.

What does art do for us? Well, Eno points out four things, and I embellish on them.

  1. 1. Explore scary feelings without being in actual danger. Nobody I know would put up with a notorious rake as a boyfriend, or want to go on a simple vacation to a country B&B and find that the host has been murdered. But in a book, I can explore things like, “What is love?” and “Who deserves to die? And who deserves justice?” without having to go through the trauma. (And let’s face it, if I were put in the midst of that kind of trauma, I be too busy to be learning lessons.)
    2. Synchronize the culture. What do we find acceptable as a culture, and what do we reject? Creative arts shape morality in a way that news just can’t, and reaches much further than simple gossip between neighors. So . . . is your book helping to synchronize the culture? To keep it in sync? Or is it just repeating an old idea that doesn’t need any help? These questions really catch my attention. The advent of reliable birth control has really changed the nuances of romance and mating in our culture. You can see this being explored in some romance novels – some stories don’t imply eventual marriage and children. And some romance novels absolutely revel in a fantasy of pregnancy – out-of-wedlock surprise babies that drive the plot, secret babies, billionaire babies . . . . You can synchronize the culture two ways: by pushing and by pulling. Some literary conversations reinforce the changes the writers want to see, and others (particularly satire) push readers away from a model by providing a horrifying example. Heady, exciting stuff – you never really know as a creator what will be heard in this cultural conversation, and the actual effect may be the opposite of the intention (if any).
    3. Art provides the raw material for more art – different re-combinations and the foundations for new and original flourishes. To borrow from Ecclesiastes 1:9, there is nothing new under the sun. Or as David Bowie sang in “Teenage Wildlife”, “The same old thing in brand new drag.” Consuming art sparks new art; new art produces more art to consume.

There were two other ideas from the lecture that I wanted to point out:

Eno talks about “scenius” – the genius of a “scene”. Art doesn’t exist by itself; there’s a whole scene of supporters of the arts who provide money, spaces for exhibition, encouragement, marketing, sometimes even food and sex. These nurture the artists, great and small. How do you feel about your “scenius”? With the internet, our potential scenius could be scattered across the world like tiny droplets, but still be enough to support our vision and our art – if only we know how to connect.

Which brings me to another point: do you dissolve into the art, or do you stand apart from the art and refuse to engage? The love of control, the fear of feeling foolish might keep you from giving yourself wholeheartedly and sharing. But there’s something about becoming part of a bigger whole that is so very much part of the human experience. This means we have to art hard, as Chuck Wendig’s mug says, and get our art in front of people who can engage in it and us. It’s not just about selling books. Through art, we can interact with the bigger whole, and add our voice to the grand conversation.

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: What does art do for us?

    • That is fabulous! I have so many thoughts on it, I think I’m going to write them up for my next blog post! Thank you!! (Sorry to make you wait before we continue the conversation.) Destination art vs. staycation art springs immediately to mind. Living the creative life: more or less valuable than visiting someone else’s creative lives? (This gets back to the point about art begetting art, though. Visiting something like this could definitely spark stories, images or ideas about atmospheric effects.)

      LOL, see? You want to let me get a chance to get my thoughts in order about this!

  1. Terrific post, Michaeline! I’ve had a couple of art experiences in the last couple of weeks that I’ve been pondering. One: I was invited to the home of a well-known (although not to me) “digital” artist, who showed the guests 20 minutes of a two-hour installation. I didn’t… understand what the goal was; it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the commission. And then I went to an exhibition of Dorothea Lange photographs and came out wanting to slash my wrists. Nothing has changed in this country since 1933; a fact brought home so poignantly by the photos. The engagement that Eno speaks of—I totally get that.

    • I know what you mean about there seeming to be no change. Cycles, they cycle. I’m stuck in the 70s to a great extent these days, and it’s amazing how many parallels there are. Smart humor by funny ladies like Carol Burnett, Cher and Bette Midler can seem dated — but it can also seem so cutting edge that you can slash your wrists with it. How come?? Where are our funny ladies? I guess time filters things. In 40 years (OMG, 50 years), we’ll probably only see the smart, funny humor of Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (and others who get their own shows), and have forgotten the sea of mediocrity that overwhelms us right now.

      Is it a 45-year cycle? That would stick the one before in the 1930s. Dorothy Parker and her buddies.

      Oh, and back to art as art. Sometimes it’s ineffable. (Unable to eff up?) One of my very favorite pieces is a giant leaf hanging by a thin thread in a white room, and it rotates as people walk by. The balance is magical, and it needs people to twist and turn in the non-existent wind. I don’t know who did it nor the name of it, but it really sticks in my mind. I was thinking about making my own to put on my porch, but I’ve got many artistic hurdles to overcome. Too much clutter on the porch, and a good typhoon would blow my giant leaf to the next county. Which would make new art, all by itself. But if no one is there to watch it fly up the mountains, is it still art? It’s not a still life, that’s for sure.


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