Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Art

You can’t define art.

You can’t define storytelling.

You can’t define writing except in the most trivial and reductionist way: “words strung together.”

There are no rules. We tell young writers there are rules, because it helps limit the size of the problem they’re wrestling with, but really there are not. There’s technique, and that’s helpful and important: a command of technique is the difference between hit and miss and the ability to reliably produce competent work. But techniques are not rules.

There are no rules of writing I’ve ever seen that do not have exceptions – and let’s not waste our time with “the exception that proves the rule,” since this is merely a phrase misused by people who don’t understand it – it merely meant, in its original use, that the rule had been proven false.

Rules that have exceptions are guidelines, not rules. Orwell’s five rules famously contain a sixth that effectively says, “Except when the rule makes no goddamn sense for what you’re trying to do.” Elmore Leonard has ten rules that should be required reading for young writers – but which some great writers violate repeatedly to good effect. (Leonard, being a great writer, is as aware as Orwell that his rules are merely guidelines: his essay on his rules of writing finishes with an example of Steinbeck breaking these rules to good effect.)

Some rules I’ve had thrown at me over the years – once by Damon Knight, who said I’d convinced him, when we were done:

“A story must not be boring.” Says you. I’ve been bored by lots of stories.

OK, how about: “A story must not be intentionally boring?” Well, Waiting for Godot certainly appears to be.

“A story is a person with a problem.” It can be. But not always: sometimes a story is about something unambiguously good happening to a person.

Maybe even just: “A story must be about a person?” No? One of my favorite pieces of my own writing is a story about a tree, On Sequoia Time.


Stories are just a subset of all the kinds of art out there.

Recently a screenwriter I otherwise respect argued that the television show Dexter, far from being one of the best things on television, wasn’t even art: it was pornography, an exercise in pandering to the base instincts of its audience.

I am not writing to defend or even to praise Dexter. I don’t care if you like it, if you think it’s bad trash or good trash or simply brilliant. (I’ll go with “simply brilliant.”) Practically nobody likes George A. Romero’s Knightriders as well as I do, and that’s fine; I’m long past requiring external validation for my tastes, and I still watch Knightriders every year around my birthday, regardless of the opinions of others. (It is one of the best independent American movies ever made, by the way, despite being too long and having a few lapses of tone here and there.)

But the bright line used to consign Dexter to “porn” was this: that art must challenge us (and thatDexter did not, in this writer’s opinion.) That it must take our expectations and confound them, must make us reconsider what we know or believe to be true –

– and absolutely: this is one of the real functions of art, a vital and important function. But it’s not the most important function and it’s not the place where we divide work into “art” on one side and “porn” on another. Art, to borrow a terrible cliché (and Orwell would tell me not to do this) … is an elephant. We see the parts of it that we respond to, we become aware of art because it moves us. The parts that we don’t respond to are not art … for our purposes: but they may be art for the purposes of our neighbors, who are of different ages and genders and backgrounds, who have different life experiences and skills and lovers and friends and family.

Should art challenge us? Yes.

Should it uplift us? Yes.

Warn us? Yes.

Scare us? Yes.

Teach us new things? Yes.

Reinforce what we know to be true? Yes.

Entertain us? Hell yes.

Connect us to one another? Yes.

Let us see through someone else’s eyes? Yes.

Remind us of our common humanity? Yes.

Remind us of the ways in which we’re unusual, or even unique?

… yes.

Art is whatever you experience as art: all that’s required is that some person or persons, in an intentional act, created something that, when you encountered it, caused an emotional or even spiritual reaction in you.

… and there are no rules. There’s technique, and mastery of technique is one of the differences between mediocre and good artists; though probably it is not as important as conviction.

There is a language of art that we’ve learned and taught to one another, and that language changes by art form and by time and by culture and by person. But there are no rules, none, not a one: just people traveling down their personal roads: and for all of us, wherever we are this year, the horizon is the same distance away.