The Purpose of Art: Where I Stand Today

Tonight I saw a movie (Gone Baby Gone) that does a wonderful job of posing an unanswerable question. I thought I’d recommend it to a friend. In the email to my friend, I said I didn’t want to restart a debate we’d had in college. That debate was about whether art should preach or ask questions. I said I didn’t want to restart the debate because my views on the subject have changed over the years. That got me thinking: Where do I stand now? What is art for?

So, in case he asks, and before I forget, I thought I’d jot down some current thoughts on the subject.

Back in college, if I remember correctly, I took the position that art should preach. I didn’t say it that way, but really, that’s where I stood. In large part, I think I took that position to justify a failing in my own writing. I’m prone to produce moralizing, pedantic stories, and rather than do the hard work to overcome this flaw, I wanted to explain why all artistic theory should support my own bad habit.

As I’ve grown as an artist, mostly through teaching, I’ve come to doubt my previous pronouncements. Having read hundreds of students’ stories that fell into the same traps of my own juvenile writing, I now make a point to teach my students that a theme is not a moral, and that a story which can be summed up in a single “Thou Shalt” statement isn’t much of a story. But what is the alternative? Should art seek only to entertain? Is “art for art’s sake” enough? Should art pose questions, the way this film did?

I still don’t accept that art should exist for its own sake. This, to me, denies the fact that an exchange is taking place between the artist and the audience; it implies that the means is the end in itself. If artists are honest, we have to believe that something real is going on, a genuine transaction between two parties. Otherwise, we are best served to journal, to dance in the dark, to paint pictures to hang in our own bedrooms. If we really don’t care about the audience, why burden them with work that wasn’t designed with them in mind? I believe a denial of the value of the audience will show in the quality of any artwork. So if the behavior of creating art is valuable; if we want to get better as artists, we have to think about the audience. The work can’t be the end in itself.

This is especially true in the context of narrative art. Something magical goes on in the minds of the audience, the willing suspension of disbelief. In order to achieve this, something far less magical goes on in the mind of the artist: artificially designed believability. While the audience chooses to accept that a story is real during the telling, the artist must design an experience which facilitates this process. But here’s the rub: life isn’t believable. It doesn’t follow a neat plot ark. We don’t experience happy endings or tragic ones; we go on living. The over-eager attempt to recreate reality just produces bad art: stories that don’t conclude (or lack intentionally provocative inconclusive endings), characters who make irrelevant choices, the recreation of the banality the audience sought to avoid in the first place. Good art is unreal, but believable. Since that’s the case, it can’t be the end in itself, or it’s just a lie told for no reason. An artist has to believe he or she communicates with an audience: we tell a lie to make a buck, to get a laugh or a tear, to tell a greater truth, something. We can’t lie just to lie.

So, if the art is a means to communicate with the audience, how should this transaction occur? Should the artist try to teach the audience something? There may be cases where this is justified, but it implies a kind of authority most of us don’t deserve. When Jesus uses parables to teach his disciples, he gets to be preachy. He has that authority. I would argue that Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons achieve the level of art, but as a pastor in a pulpit, he’s been given the authority to speak from on high by anyone who chooses to sit below him in a pew. I don’t think the same deference is owed to actors on a stage, or in front of a camera, to painters in a studio, or to writers banging away at their computers. I certainly haven’t earned the right to preach at anyone. (In fact, most people would consider it pretty vain that I would even speak about myself using the term “artist”. I would say they are assuming the term implies quality, an assumption I don’t share. I refuse to play the “Is it art” game when it comes to questions of quality. Bad art is still art. “Art” is determined by the artist’s intent, while quality is determined by her/his talent, skill, and hard work. When I write fiction I am an artist. I just may be a bad artist.)

So, if art shouldn’t preach, should it, instead, be morally neutral? Merely a commodity to exchange? My first impulse is to say, “No.” I want to deny this craven, capitalist part of the exchange between artist and audience. But, when I think about it, I must admit that I do believe art should entertain. I’ve experienced (and, I admit, created) art which sought to be Great Art at the expense of entertaining, and it’s awful. It benefits the narcissism of the artist and the narcissism of the audience, but any “greatness” is sacrificed on the shrine of pride. Entertainment is what makes art do its work. It facilitates the transaction between the artist and the audience. Artist who deny the value of entertainment are really saying, “Ignore the art. Look at me. See what I can do?” And audiences who choose such art are saying, “Ignore the art. Look at me. See what ‘Great Art’ I can appreciate?” Two people, both gazing at their own navels, hardly generate something that can be considered communication.

But is entertainment enough? In general, I think it is. If we want art that might do something more than entertain, we have to leave room for a lot more art that does nothing else. Otherwise, there will be no art that welcomes people in through entertainment and then surprises them with something more. Without entertainment, the only art would be the kind audiences experience out of a sense of grudging obligation (“My teacher/friend/social group is making me read/watch/see/listen to this.”), or worse, that egotistical impulse to call attention to one’s self (“I read/watched/saw/listened to this, and I got it. Aren’t I great?”). To prevent this, the vast majority of art should do nothing more than entertain. Does this commoditize the experience? Certainly, but that doesn’t have to be bad. Service is not, in itself, greed. If the audience needs the experience of entertainment, the artist is providing a service. If the artist needs an audience in order to exist as anything but a navel gazer, the audience is also providing a service. If money changes hands to lubricate this exchange, that’s fine, but one could argue that the artist is just as obligated to pay the audience as they are to pay the artist. Determining who gets paid is based on economic principles of scarcity, not on principles of art. If it’s really a conversation, the benefits go both ways, with or without cash.

So, if all art should entertain in order that some can do more than entertain, what might that “more” consist of? If it consists of education for the audience, that can be a happy accident, but as soon as it becomes the driving force the artist has fallen back into the preaching trap, taking on underserved authority and forcing an unequal power dynamic into what should be, as much as possible, the kind egalitarian relationship necessary for real conversation. The artist says, “Look what I’ve made for you”, and the audience must feel free to say, “Thank you. I think it sucks.” Moralizing leaves the audience feeling that they can’t deny the work without denying the moral. This would be an unfair rhetorical ploy that would end conversation, so if art is conversation, it shouldn’t be employed there either. Artists naturally take on power within this conversation; the power of the byline, the power to choose what they reveal, the power to frame the debate. But all this power should be balanced by the power of the audience; the power to choose to engage, the power to maintain the experience, the power to judge. Moralizing attempts to take away some of the audience’ power. People generally go to hear sermons out of a sense of religious duty, stay through them when they don’t enjoy them out of a fear that they would be judged harshly if they stood up and walked out, and reign in their harshest judgments because they don’t want to deny the authority of the pastor, the scripture, or God. These same people don’t, and shouldn’t, feel the same compulsion to pick up a book, to finish it, or to pretend they liked it.

But if it’s a conversation, the artist can do more than just entertain. To argue the inverse would be to demand a world where our interpersonal conversations consist solely of jokes and sob stories. Artists, like any conversationalist, should reserve the right to ask questions of the audience. They should be able to make a point, as long as it’s done respectfully and not from a position of authority. And they should be able to admit they don’t know the answers.

That, I think, is why I’ve always tended toward preachy stories: laziness and fear. Moralizing gave me confidence when I didn’t think my stories would stand up to scrutiny. After all, if the story failed, the audience would at least have to concede the moral, right? That, I think, explained my impulse to preachy-ness in college, and compelled me to make my argument with my friend. But now, when I succumb to that same temptation, I think it’s due more to laziness than fear. Now I do it because admitting to what I don’t know is not only difficult on the ego, but it’s particularly hard work for the storyteller. After all, a storyteller must know the story, right? So how can I tell the story I know while admitting to a deeper ignorance regarding the story’s meaning in an uncertain world? The very act of telling a story implies a moral imperative: if I’ve got a story to tell you, I believe you should hear it. How can I respect my audience enough to try to think of the story they will want to hear, without coming up with the meaning they should hear embedded within it? I’m trying to find that story my audience will want to hear, while still admitting I don’t quite know why we need to hear it, or what it all means. And that’s very hard work. Moralizing is just easier.

My understanding of art has evolved significantly from my days in college. I can’t be certain the evolution is a move toward a more accurate conception, though, of course, I have to believe it is. But I do know the process of contemplating the purpose of art has tracked well with my own improvement as an artist. This is because a better conception of the purpose of art still might not tell me when I succeed, but it frequently reminds me when I’m failing.