As a teacher, I only really have one indulgence. Generally, a teacher’s job should be to instruct their students until said students have mastery of the subject autonomously, the desires of the teacher secondary to the desires of the students. But I always find myself concluding my time with students the same way, asking one of my favorite questions ever: What is art? Now, I know what you may be thinking, that I am a crazy person that wants a bunch of language students (that’s right, this is ESL and EFL we’re talking about) to struggle, but that’s only slightly it (cue smiley emoticon).
Actually, I ask the question to pave the way for another, more important question, that being: What does art do? Artistic expression is a mysterious thing, the study of it an inconclusive train wreck of thousands of art critics, philosophers, novelists, highly unqualified acolytes to the discipline (me), and artists, all struggling to explain the meaning behind human’s need to use symbolism and erect systems of artistic logic. I pose the question, though, of whether it’s important to know how to define art, or if it’s more beneficial to know how and why we adopt creative behaviors. Of course, my ideas are incomplete and at times incoherent, but I prefer it that way.
When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, I had a professor that liked to cut through all the stuff you’d normally hear in an English literature classroom and ask us to trace behaviors and actions. Once, a student raised his hand and went on a pretty impressive rant that spanned a wide array of interconnected novels and themes, but the professor stopped him after a while and said in his soft, resonant voice, “That wasn’t the question. The question was, what is the character in this scene doing?” This stopped the whole class short, and we knew then that the real struggle had just begun.
At the same time, I had another professor who told an entire lecture hall of enraptured students about the time he’d snuck into an art gallery with a buddy or two and placed a piece of pie on a white pedestal, only to have the pie stay there for two or three weeks. He questioned the class about not only the definition of art, but also the event of art, and the reason why we behave in certain ways towards art. This also I’ve been puzzling over for many years.
Now, those two instances stick with me, because both inspired me to be a critic of everything. The first professor would always tell us to think like critics, to see the physical behaviors around us and try to figure out what is really going on (he’d always ask us to follow the symbolic logic, saying that we as symbolic creatures create stories to help us deal with the natural, dangerous world around us). And the second incited in me an artistic paranoia, a need to pick apart the edifice of everything I saw, not for some grand meaning, but for behavioral connections and little emotional truths. Since these two professors, I’ve always asked students and colleagues alike why art functions like it does, and whether we can follow the symbolic logic of art the same way as scientists follow biological behaviors.
This attitude, of course, has led to problems. People have incredibly powerful emotional connections to their ideologies, grand and minute. Religion and science both fall under the category of stories we tell ourselves in the grand scheme of figuring out what’s going on, even with their immense methodological differences, and each camp clings to their observations and beliefs with iron resolve. Over the past four years I’ve played devil’s advocate a fair deal, and found the world of symbolic storytelling vast and all encompassing, and it may have driven me crazy, only because anything you see can be seen as a story, the important question becoming not whether or not its artistic in nature (we’ll get to that), but what it’s doing for the human animal.
I’m not saying prepare to have your mind blown (I’m no great scholar), but you could benefit from at least attempting to blow your own mind. In part II, I’ll tell a few stories of how that happened for me, and how you could do it yourself. Prepare for literary, artistic, and overall wacky fun times.