The Seventeen Seconds of Odette
Hidden in Sight
Resentment as a Kind of Relief
Over the Kanawha
Culled from the Flock
The Beauty in Fracturing
On the Fundamentals of Art and the Soul
Of all of the important, intangible aspects of our existence, there is no aspect that is more important than that of artistic expression. This is a truth that has long been understood by the human race, and the support for this view runs as wide as it does deep: from the cave dwellers to the Greeks, from the medieval period to the Renaissance. But this support does not mean much in an era where there is little-to-no emphasis placed on artistic expression. The fact of the matter is that modern society is not interested in our ability to bring things to life. As a result, many of us do not consider ourselves to be artists, and we rarely engage in artistic expression; we go through life without creating anything that is one hundred percent our own. But this attitude is counterintuitive to everything we know to be true about ourselves, and it is, for this reason, an attitude that we must shed: art is essential to the lives of human beings.
We find proof of this almost from birth: every child is artistically inclined. We find evidence of this in daycares and elementary schools, in the high-volume sales of PlayDoh and coloring books—children are drawn to art, to make-believe and play. These are activities that they engage in without any fear of judgment or failure, and the secret to their bravery is this: there is something beautiful and awesome in the willingness to create. Something beautiful in our desire to bring our conceptions into the world. We are all like this. But somewhere between our days as children and our years as adults, many of us lose this motivation. We do not lose the ability to produce art; what we lose is the ability to venture into ourselves with the courage to elicit something from within. Simply put, we lose our nerve: we become aware of the fact that we might fail.
We only begin to recognize artistic failure as we grow older. This is because we start to characterize our creations by their beauty. Our judgments allow us to assess our fine art, our poetry and short stories and label them disastrous. We then laugh to camouflage our insecurities; we say things like, “This is why I’m not an artist.” But what we never realize is that, when we say this, we dismiss what gives art meaning in the first place. The aim of an artist should never be aesthetic greatness—that is not the point. The aim of the artist to realize this basic truth: to participate in the arts is to participate in being human.
So when we grow up and abandon our art, we lose some part of ourselves along the way. We relinquish our embrace of the unease and uncertainty that comes from being human. And we find that, paradoxically, as we lose our creativity, we become more aware of our failings and dissatisfaction. We awake to our regrets and our loneliness just as we abandon the one thing that can make sense of it all. One of the few things that make us human.
Those who are still standing, therefore, are the ones who are not afraid enough to give up. Who are not afraid of failure. Nor are they afraid of what comes next, of the promise that is made when one commits to art. For when we make this commitment, we promise to peer deep into ourselves, to reach past our defenses and expose everything in us. So that now everything attempted is merely that: an attempt. An attempt to create something, to convey something, to understand everything. We live like children again, grasping for answers as if they are puzzle pieces strewn across the room. We discover that art is the painful process of finding these pieces, of placing them together to discover some larger meaning. The problem is that these pieces will go missing; they will be lost to us, and we may never find them in our lifetime. What we find is that our satisfaction as artists will ultimately come from how well we are able to accept this fact.
Because it is almost impossible to know whether those answers were available to us in the first place. So we must also come to terms with the fact that our own defects may keep us from the truth. This places us in the position of having to wrest with our own unhappiness. We want to understand it, dissect it, hold it up to the light like a colored slide. Our hope is that, by living alongside our unhappiness, we can figure out what keeps us from those answers. This does not mean that we have to be miserable to find understanding. But what it does mean is that we must possess a brutal, bloody honesty and bravery to face our limits, whether they be our failure or our trauma or our pain.
Our art, therefore, is something that we must painfully extract from ourselves, and each attempt is a battle. There is a reason why we cringe when we hear the words: “Do more of it.” All artistic endeavors are the continuing process of sifting through our history to find some kind of authenticity or significance, using blood mixed with ink. It is a solitary journey that leads us to some genuine emotion: the realization that this is all a movement toward something that is bigger than ourselves.
It is after we have spilled our ink that our interests inevitably gravitate toward the meaning of our creations. But the problem with focus is that a piece’s meaning can be endlessly interpreted: it can represent one thing for us and everything else for others. As artists, we cannot escape the pervasive question, “What does this piece mean to me?” nor can we escape its relative, “What will it mean to others?” These questions confront us regardless of whether we are aware of them. And this is because our shared condition is comprised of daunting afflictions, and art is our way to diagnose them. If our work is grounded in an exploration of those feelings, then it extends itself as a source of hope to its audience, and this is why we ask questions of meaning.
Meaningful art embodies the kinds of truths that audiences can recognize in themselves: it is a mirroring of our primal, nearly unbearable sense of being. For this reason, it is impossible for us to force our works to carry a singular meaning—we simply cannot do it. Art repels control. It is elusive and shape shifting and purely its own. To suggest that we could control our work would belie everything we know to be true about art. It has no obligation to any one person or even to the masses: art only has an obligation to uncover those truths about us that have been obscured. Whether others are there to engage with these truths is unimportant. We cannot, for this reason, reduce art to something as banal as meaning. Because when we do this, we do a disservice to the work, to the artist and to every other human being who can engage with it.
But the previous analysis only addresses the work itself; there is still something to be said for the artist. For there is almost always a substantial gap between what an artist intends for a piece and its eventual form. Learning to accept the gap that exists between intent and reception is necessary in order for us to survive, much less succeed. Art, in a many ways, teaches its pupils austerity. We learn to discard things—expectations, our perceptions of others—so that, when it comes time to “kill our darlings,” we are ready. We are able to take our favorite aspects of our works and eliminate them, if need be. We can observe the resulting effect, see how the work changes. It is a lesson in nonattachment. It is the process of rubbing pieces down to their most base, their rawest form to present only the purity of what they attempt to convey.
The question of what it means to be an artist, for this reason, has an obvious answer: to be an artist is to explore others and ourselves without judgment—to study flaws and present them to the world in testament to their beauty. It is to possess the same childlike honesty and courage in the face of failure that got us into art in the first place, and it is to then to imbue our courage with intention and dignity. We are all born with the ability to find something of significance in ourselves and to give it as a gift to others. For this reason, every new endeavor in art is predicated on the hope that we will find something new of ourselves. And the result of this foray into our spirit, our very essence leads to audiences in crowded theatres and concert halls who await those works that will move them, even if they cannot articulate why. Art is nothing more than a plate of flowers left as an offering to the nameless deities we hold within us. And we will continue creating, even after they have answered our prayers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ayla Maisey is a freshman at Columbia College Chicago majoring in creative nonfiction. Her other pursuits include wandering through foreign countries, amateur photography and writing poetry. You can often find her curled up with over-sweetened tea and her two cats, but she is probably in her house at that point, so please do not do that. She has never listened to Take Care, but she promises that she will when she finishes listening to An Awesome Wave.