The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What is Art?

The recent discussion about Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” opened a bit of a Pandora’s box. His book is loved by some, loathed by others, hotly debated, and one incredibly profitable page-turner.  In essence, he took a bunch of conspiracy theories that have been around for quite a long time, wove them together, and published them as “fiction” while protesting that the essence was truth.

Was this fair?  Was it honest?  Can we assume that his intentions were malicious?  Defamatory?  Revolutionary?  It is hard to say without reading the man’s mind, and I cannot do that.

A question that does arise, however, is this: what is the nature of Art, and what are the responsibilities of the Artist to the world at large, and to herself?

For me, the primary responsibility of the artist is to communicate her deepest sense of the world as it is.  Of her inner experience. Of any aspect of reality which has been inadequately languaged or expressed.  In this sense, there is a vast array of subjects that have been addressed exhaustively: love, sex, power, fear, yearning, pain, birth and death.  In my own work, I’ve been rather obsessed with the question of becoming a warrior—my own metaphor for simply becoming a man.  Without a father in my home, I was left without a clear guideline in this arena.  My mother, bless her heart, did the best she could, but all a woman can offer is her opinions about what a man is, perhaps some role models based on her friends, family, and perhaps relationships.  Most importantly, she can demonstrate what a mature, responsible HUMAN BEING is, which is more important than being either a man or a woman.  But I specifically wanted women to react to me the way I saw them react to other guys.  And I wanted men to respect me in the specific way they respected other men.

And this my mother could not demonstrate for me, bless her heart. 

This whole arena caused me more pain, more grief, more mistakes, more fear and doubt than everything else combined. Those who think that race has been the dominating issue in my work aren’t looking closely enough. 

This well of pain and concern HAD to be addressed before I could look at the next question, the deeper questions: what is it to be human, and what is it simply to be?

That last one is the corker, but I had to go through so much to get there: male, black, human.  Then, alive. And then, simply to exist. THAT is the core miracle.

But you have to work your way there.  I envy those with a cultural or family road map: Do THIS and you will be a man.  Do THIS and you will be an adult.  Etcetera.  However inexact or corrupt, the cultural maps at least provide us with a starting place, something to compare our own experiences and observations to.

To me, the artist pledges her life to asking the hard questions, and then expressing them—or the answers—in some form capable of communicating to an audience.  Dance, sculpture, poetry, music…or what of the artistic forms that are rarely considered in such context?  Raising children, crafting gardens, teaching…anything in life can be used as a form of artistic expression.  All we need do is commit, to decide that this challenge, the expression of deepest truth, is something worth the investment of our most precious commodity: our time, our energy, our life itself.

From this promise to the most eternal part of our being springs the font of art.

Of course, this is just my view.  What’s yours?

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