The Identity of Art
By Marie Skinner, Editor in Chief
Though I haven’t spent my time in college studying art or art history, I think it’s what I came to school to figure out.
A poet has the power to name; to bestow context, and, by extension, identity, and to help the subjects of his writing shed labels, which are generalizations that limit and reduce, so that the idea or experience under those words can be understood in a new way. The work must gain independence from the writer in order to endure in the world. Writing a poem down isn’t enough; art needs an identity of its own in order to draw an audience, but it must remain free to associate and adapt. Being too closely tied to the identity of the creator limits the contexts in which art can thrive, which makes a strong case that artists should always consider how much they reveal about their connection to their work.
Art embodies something of the artist, and it stands perpendicular—like a signpost—to its subject. By becoming the focus of a poem or any other form of art, the subject becomes more than it was on its own. This kind of sign marks the subject as something to be moved into the gallery of the mind and creates a new context through which the reader may engage with it. The artist tells the viewer how to contextualize the creation, and no matter how mundane it seemed before, at least at first, we can’t help but see it as the artist presents it, whether that demands awe, tears, or laughter in response. Without the audience’s participation, poetry and comedy alike fall flat. This is the power of a poet—to redefine how we experience the object of art.
Ultimately, art isn’t an object or idea projected out into the world, it’s not an item or a song or words or an image, it’s whatever makes those who experience it, whatever it is, beautiful or terrible or sad. It’s what makes us laugh, rage, cry, and cringe. We are the vital medium, not canvas and paint or marble or language. And this is why it’s so disturbing to ask; can bad people make good art? Because they can. They can make us feel things very strongly, but it’s troubling because that means they’ve touched us. Knowing our emotions were inspired by someone whom we consider reprehensible, or even just distasteful, changes what we feel, which brings our reaction into focus and defies the impulse to pretend we felt nothing in the first place. In short, knowledge of the artist changes how art plays the audience, how it paints us, and how it sings us. Knowing the creator is evil can spoil the experience, but it can also change nothing about how we experience the creation. And that seems to be the most distressing problem; what does it say of us when we can find beauty or joy or connection in the creation of a person whom we believe to be evil? Intellectually, most people know that beauty and goodness are correlative, not causative, and that ugliness and evilness are similarly separated. But it doesn’t feel true, so it remains upsetting when bad people can make us laugh or when we admire their talent.
Art doesn’t have to make the audience feel good because it’s an attempt by the artist to get the subject into the audience’s awareness. What art presents to the audience is symbolic thought, complexity, layered meaning. Artists must be free to delve into unsavory topics and raise questions that are difficult or unpleasant to put into words, and artists may be best equipped of any profession to do it. Artists are people who cut through reality in ways that can’t easily be ignored or forgotten. The artist benefits from the pain and suffering of others, from the grisly and gruesome, by turning it into the fuel for art. Should an artist be forgiven for this nightmare exchange? Does the empathy art can engender in the audience redeem the artist for refusing to look away, for defying social expectations, and for breaking taboos? I think the answer must be that artists should be forgiven, and that it does.
Kentridge, William. William Kentridge: Pain & Sympathy. 02 April 2010, https://art21.org/watch/extended-play/william-kentridge-pain-sympathy-short/.