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MONDAY, JULY 04, 2011
People often say, as if it’s an indisputable, self-evident truth, that “art is just self-expression.” Actually, it isn’t. Self-expression is “I’m hot,” or “I’m hungry,” or “I’m sad.” And since one’s feelings belong in a diary or in a boring conversation, how you “feel” is the least important part of creating art, that is, if you want to create something that has to do with the world of other people instead of just yourself.

The common misconception of art as self-expression creates a lot of problems, not the least of which is sappy poetry. But more importantly, if we think of art as merely or primarily about the artist’s feelings, then what role is left for art to have any positive, public impact?

My former English prof Ryan Knighton tells his classes that the personal essay is the most powerful form of writing. But even though it’s “personal”, he says, the writing has to be about something beyond yourself, i.e.: the world outside. Of course, art of any kind comes from a person’s mind, but we all know how corny a piece of art can be when it’s simply a this-is-how-I-feel/this-is-my-message type thing, whether it’s overtly personal or pretentiously political (to see what I mean, check out some slam poetry).

I recently came across a nice anecdote. A student asks their art teacher, “How do I know when the piece is done?” The teachers says, “When you can stand back, look at it and say, ‘I did that?’” The point is you want the artwork to be able to stand on its own two feet, without having to explain what you were feeling when you created it. After all, the audience shouldn’t have to rely on the artist’s biography to make sense to the art.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Northrop Frye: “The poet’s task is to deliver the poem in as uninjured a state as possible, and if the poem is alive, it is equally anxious to be rid of him, and screams to be cut loose from his private memories and associations, his desire for self-expression, and all the other naval-strings and feeding tubes of his ego.”

In other words, a piece of art is like a baby, and you want a baby to walk and talk on its own, to be its own person, free from domineering parents giving constant guidance. You want the art/baby to grow up, be independent, and interact with others without having its hand held or its creator explaining for them. The artist, like the parent, must let go, however hard it is, of the thing it gave birth to.

In a creative writing class it’s difficult to criticize people’s work, mostly because everyone assumes art is personal, and, of course, you can’t criticize people’s feelings. That’s just mean. But if art really is just self-expression, then how can you revise your work? Can you “improve” your feelings? Revision and improvement are possible only because there are such things as good art and crap art, neither of which have much to do with how hungry or sad the artist was at the time of creation.

It’s very easy to write off art as just self-expression. It’s a convenient shield from criticism. Worse, though, it exempts the artist from the responsibility to include something of a social vision, to touch on public morality without moralizing. As far as anti-democratic authority is concerned, it would rather see art denigrated to the point where artists ignore social problems and focus on their personal feelings. In a capitalistic society we’re encouraged to be greedy and selfish. And so it makes sense that in such a society art is assumed and encouraged to be selfish, that is, “just self-expression”.


This article first appeared in the Simon Fraser University student paper, The Peak, issue 7, volume 127 - October 15, 2007
Comments

Alamir

Alamir

I can't help but feel this is one step short of saying what I said in this post: /Alamir/2008/08/22/The_problem_with_Creative_Writers that to be a true creative writer one must be willing to lose their voice often. You use the word "independent" and the idea of it being free of the artist. That's quite close to what I was saying. To go back to your analogy of the student having to ask himself "did I write that?" my argument was basically that your readers should be saying "Did you write that?" ... Which, accordingly, is what Samael had basically said when he responded "this doesn't sound like you" ..to the very piece I wrote on losing one's voice.
REPLIES: Hogan

Hogan

HOGAN

Replying to Alamir:
Good point. I'd forgotten about your piece when I posted the article, and I wrote it last year, so I definitely wasn't thinking of your piece then. I think my piece was a little more clear about it, though. Maybe...just sayin'...

Alamir

Alamir

You mentioned in my article that I was being "incoherent" and I think other commentators were confused as well.I think your article was more straightforward, that's why I would use it to clarify what I was saying. However, my final point was that one should go one step-further than just not using self-expression and lose their voice by adopting other people's expressions and creating new ones. Furthermore, once this is done the person should never stay stagnant with that new voice that they've adopted or else they risk making that new voice their own...which leads to the same problems of self-expression.

alishahnovin

alishahnovin

I'll chime in by saying that there's equal grievance on the flip side. When art is a selfish thing, meant to be kept to oneself, and another comes across it and feels the need to understand it, to get it, it can be a little bothersome. Sometimes one does things that only they will get, and they get a satisfaction that in this world of immediate knowledge, where things can be immediately linked, and discerned, there's an ounce of privacy still left. I can link together several events in my life, and create some form of "art" out of it, one which I could keep to myself. No one would get it anyway - as the only way to unlock it would be to have lead my life. Sometimes you don't want that to be gotten - the art itself is that it cannot be gotten. And that form of art can still be shared, and often it's all the more intriguing.

I think we see it all the time - when we come across the journals of musicians, artists, writers, politicians, etc. It may not be exactly art, and it was certainly never intended as art, but the point remains that we are still very much intrigued by a life we did not lead. We, as the audience, have a desire to know more about the person - perhaps get inside their head - so that we can then appreciate the art on another level.

And here's my example of this: Take any number of songs written by John Lennon, when he was within the Beatles or doing his solo career. A number of songs are made only better by the life John Lennon had - his issues of abandonment. Abandoned by his father, and to an extent his mother. His mother dying while he was still young. His uncle later dying. His father returning to him only when Lennon had reached the height of his success. These are all events within his life which are rarely expressed in his music - except in a few key songs. But we are intrigued all the more by those very songs, after knowing the life he had. We look at the lyrics and wonder "What is he really saying?"

Compare this to McCartney, who - in his post-Beatle career - was putting out art for public consumption. He even was mocking himself to a degree, with lyrics like "You think that people would have had enough of silly love songs..." in a song titled Silly Love Song, no less.

I think there are many "self-expression" Lennon songs that are largely misunderstood but are considered greater works than McCartney songs, which are that mixture of self-expressed/outward looking, universally approachable songs. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that we know enough about Lennon to know there's something deeper within those songs, and we just want to know more.
REPLIES: Alamir

Alamir

Alamir

Replying to alishahnovin:
Alishah, a lot times when I read one of your long comments I think it should have been just an article response on its own. You raise so many points, but good points, that we might as well make it a new article.



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