|English: John Keats life mask by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1816). This mask is a reproduction in the author's private collection. The 1816 plaster cast from the original life mask is in the collection of the British National Portrait Gallery, as is a copper electrotype copy done by Elkington & Co. in 1884. See Person - John Keats. National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved on . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Maybe we can’t provide an “is” version of art, but perhaps we can profitably discuss a “does” definition. Here are my ideas.
1. It tells us something we didn’t know in terms of simple matters of fact.
2. It tells us something we didn’t know in terms of sympathy, of understanding others, of breaking down the barriers between "us" and "them," of entering the lives and minds of others.
3. It tells us something we didn’t know in terms of empathy, not just thinking into and understanding the lives of others, but for a moment feeling what they feel.
4. In the most general terms, it tells us something about ourselves we didn’t know. It promotes self-knowledge.
5. On an intellectual level, it helps us understand our semi-conscious notion of how things should be done in a certain art genre, what its limits and conventions are. Yes, we think, that’s the way it should be done, and if my expectations are violated, I don't like it.
6. On an intellectual level, it helps us understand that our notion of how things should be done in a certain art genre perhaps should be expanded. Who knew you could expand the boundaries of an art form in such a way and still have it work?
7. My old art director from magazine days used to praise things for being “richly vague.” The poet John Keats described something he called Negative Capability, the ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Sometimes we enjoy something that seems to want to be interpreted but resists a single easy interpretation.
8. It reminds us that we don’t have to rationalize everything. Emotion can carry the day, and we don’t always have to explain why. (Well, we do in this class.)
Some examples from my personal list of "new knowledge" from this semester:
1. Australia is really mean to political refugees.
2. Many Chinese immigrants had a really hard time in the U.S., which I tend to forget not being Chinese-American. The Lenora Lee dance company rekindled dormant sympathies.
3. At certain points in the LL dance performances I think as a man for a moment I felt with a female dancer, not just about her dancing. Maybe.
4. I am not cool or hip enough to appreciate certain kinds of irony about death and destruction in certain movie genres. Yes, The Guest, I’m talking about you.
5. Chekhov said something like, “If someone waves a gun around in the first act of a play, it should go off in the third act.” (Ten cool examples.) Mabel plays with the leaf blower in Gravity Falls, and later on she uses it to save the day. Go, Mabel! “Too Many Cooks” reminds us how thoughtlessly we accept a genre’s underlying conventions.... I guess?
6. On the other hand, Slow Falling Bird challenged my sense of how much fantasy, reality and indeterminacy – what the hell was that? – can mingle in a play that, in the end, I enjoyed for reasons beyond sympathy and empathy.
7. The end of SFB. The Fish Child walks out into the audience. The director said he intended this as an affirmative moment. I thought she looked scary as hell and assumed the playwright meant Australia was in for some trouble.
8. I go home. I put on the Modern Jazz Quartet vinyl. I feel smarter and happier, who knows why? Sometimes music is a relief from thinking, just as a trashy movie can be or painting of cows or a painting of splashes and daubs. Also, Gangnam Style!