Art is Important for its Own Sake
“Why would you read fiction? It’s just made up stories”
“I don’t have time for fiction, you learn more from non-fiction”
“Yeah but Grapes of Wrath wasn’t that successful, they only made one movie out of it”
I’ve heard all of the above said before and it saddens and disappoints me each and every time. The last one was recently when speaking to my mastermind group about me coming to grips with my own aspirations of writing a great piece after reading such a piece of perfection. The response “yeah, but GoW wasn’t that successful, they only made one movie out of it” perfectly encapsulates the current zeitgeist: we are so obsessed with non-fiction, with self improvement books, and listicles of how to have a better morning routine that we have lost appreciation for what matters.
Nowadays unless something has become commercially successful it is looked down upon by the masses and the creator ridiculed as a starving artist. Commercial success has unfortunately become the default measure of whether a piece of art is any good, and it completely misses the point of why we produce art in the first place.
Art isn’t about making money. It isn’t about being popular. Art is about capturing the magic of our universe and the many facets of what it is to be human. The great pieces of art, the classics, are called so because they do just that.
We’ve become obsessed with non fiction, with facts, with data and we fail to realise that storytelling, regardless of whether it’s in print, on canvas or on a screen, is the most effective way of communicating and teaching people, of making them laugh, cry or feel profoundly. As Salman Rushdie said recently, storytelling is a part of who we are, from the moment our species learned to speak. We fail to realise that stories are told in every medium of art to educate, to inspire and yes, just to entertain.
For instance, you can tell people all day until you’re blue in the face that they should help refugees. You can hammer them with facts and reason, and try to guilt trip them into caring. More likely than not you’ll only harden their position. Hand them a copy of Grapes of Wrath, however, and for 600 pages they’re going to see from a refugee’s point of view what it’s like to try and live day to day with next to nothing. Travelling from place to place, just trying to eke out an existence for yourself and your kids in the face of hostility and indifference, not knowing where your next meal will come from. They will feel anger at their plight by looking through the character’s eyes, the power of the narrative sweeping away their prejudices.
The Lord of the Rings isn’t just some fantasy book about orcs and a magic ring and hobbits. It’s a treatise on loss, on the decay of our universe, and how when we stop communicating even with our close friends, presumptions are made and we become estranged, with suspicion taking the place of compassion.
You don’t need a motivational book to snap you out of the job you hate. Read Revolutionary Road and you’ll find within the horrible things that happen to people’s souls when they sell their life’s desires for a stable job and comfort in suburbia.
Starship Troopers isn’t some kickass military sci-fi novel, it’s one man’s deepest thoughts on the notions of citizenship, responsibility and what service really means.
These are just a few examples, and I could spend hours telling you the lessons you can learn from every great novel.
It isn’t just that great art can teach us though. In the greatest pieces of art, we get a sense of the divine on Earth, an axis mundi if you will, and the closest thing to magic we will ever experience. Think of the Sistine Chapel or Michelangelo’s David, or (in my opinion) Grapes of Wrath. These are pieces of art that are truly perfect — not an ounce of effort wasted, everything arranged just so, with no improvement possible. These works aren’t flukes or luck, they only come from years, decades of discipline, devotion and love for the art itself. Perhaps at that point, the universe gifts these people with the inspiration for such pieces and we rightly behold them in wonder.
A piece of work made for the sake of commercial success is most certainly not art, and many have unfortunately lost the ability to tell the difference between one and the other because they erroneously equate units sold with artistic merit. There is nothing artistic about Baby One More Time, but Stairway to Heaven is undoubtedly a masterpiece by a group of true artists at the peak of their ability. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray might have made tens of millions of dollars, but you’ll never hear the names Meyer or Harrison uttered in the same breath as Tolstoy or Hemingway. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with pop culture or that it doesn’t have a place in our lives, it obviously has a huge place and will continue to dominate. Hey, I’ll happily hum along to Taylor Swift as much as anyone else. High culture deserves it’s place as well though, and that place shouldn’t be relegated to the very tiny percentage of people that now consume and appreciate it. It’s merit should not depend on its popularity.
It’s certainly the case that the classics in literature have been made inaccessible by snobs, but probably worse is that we try to expose people to them too soon. Most of us were forced to study GoW, Gatsby, Hemingway and others in high school. I say forced because a teenager is too immature, both in the intellectual and psychological sense to appreciate these works. It isn’t until you’ve taken a few knocks from life, had your heart broken, felt hopeless or insignificant as an adult a few times that you can truly appreciate and understand how extraordinary these pieces are. By introducing them to people who aren’t ready for them, they get judged as too arcane, boring and inaccessible. We believe that these works are for the bookworms and academics because they make us feel inferior for not understanding or liking them when we haven’t even reached adulthood. Tragically, this belief lasts the rest of most people’s lives.
Again, we see the confusion of what true art is supposed to be. True art isn’t supposed to be popular (nor is it supposed to be unpopular), it just…is. They aren’t called classics because everybody liked them or could see the underlying message. I found Les Miserables to be sleep inducing. Likewise Crime and Punishment has about 10 pages left to start grabbing my interest before I put it down. My not liking them does not in any way diminish that they are true and great pieces of art, they just don’t resonate with me and that’s okay. That doesn’t make them too arcane or me too stupid or ignorant.
Why did I bother spending an entire day mulling this over in my head, and putting it down in a blog post? I’ve wrestled with my own aspirations as a writer for a couple of years now. I’ve wrestled with the fact that other people are more successful and making more money than I am, despite the fact that their work is (in my opinion) banal or even worse, trash. I realised a few days ago that as artists, we have to decide what’s important to us. Commercial success and true artistic merit aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive goals, but in this era more often than not they are not happy bedfellows. I don’t care for the democratisation of art, where people who aren’t very good are thought of as such because their commercial success somehow legitimises their work. If you have a great story to tell but can’t (or really, won’t) take the time to get basic sentence structure right, to even know where you should use a comma, you aren’t an artist and you sure as hell aren’t a writer (all evidence to the contrary). Likewise if you’re going to just flick blobs of colour on a canvas and sell it go right ahead, but don’t call yourself a painter when people like Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso have come before you. Democratisation of art should be about making it accessible to more people, not making it of inferior quality.
All I can say in closing is that I hope people will appreciate true art more and give it the credit it deserves, rather than judging it on how much money it’s made or how popular it is.