I don’t know if any of you took those advanced art classes they offered in school, but I never did, though I really loved to paint. Acrylic on canvas mostly. I have journal entries in which I go on about having had a first-breath-of-fresh-air kind of experience while painting at 2 a.m. in a maxi dress after a long, almost unbearable bout with depression. This was a means of joy for me, though I never pursued it outside of my own spare time. I knew my skill wouldn’t warrant admission into the advanced classes. I knew my paintings didn’t fit into “greatness” in terms of what we all have been conditioned to refer to as such, but I failed to realize that my art was great on its own terms, for its own purposes.
We were and are taught quality as though it is a definitive concept that can be learned. We tend to foster creativity within limited, structural, safe means. This is how we are taught what makes literature fine, art coveted. It always seems a little elusive, a little rare, as though the greatness is encrypted. It was always a little beyond us, but spectacular mostly because our teachers said so.
As we gather around our TVs to watch another award season unfold, to see art be categorized and judged, we see how we are a culture obsessed with deciding who is worthy and who is not. We watch people walk down the red carpet and listen to commentators judge their appearances, compartmentalize their beauty, and we have to stop and wonder: how does this affect the millions of people watching, hanging on every word?
In doing this, we give into the ideal, overarching, pre-determined idea of what is artful and beautiful in the world. In many ways, this predisposed standard limits people. It falls somewhere on the same wavelength as our nearly compelling need to determine who is lesser than us, the very kind that has driven mankind to literal atrocities time and time again.
What makes “good art?” Is it the art that’s conceptually unique and well-executed? Is it that which is popular, widely consumed, unanimously loved? Is it that which awakens our consciousness, helps us make sense of our experiences, changes our perspective, documents a reality, contemplates history? Is it simply the result of someone working hard and expressing something they’re passionate about? (After all: that’s how they graded it in school, based on whether or not you put effort into it, whether or not you evolved, whether or not you got better from your personal best.)
Is it that which is so complicated that its execution is reserved for a distinct, talented few? Is it that which is incomprehensible to the lay person but understood to someone deeply educated? Is it that which displays an expression that is declared great by some upstanding figure in society leading others to follow suit in their beliefs, as so often happens?
How, in any way, can these things not be subjective to some degree?
By definition, and my personal belief, art is just the expression of human creativity, or the application of it, in a way that externalizes and physicalizes that which is inherently internal and embodied. Often it warrants a greatness and appreciation for the beauty and emotional power it holds, either for the artist or the subsequent observer. But the definition itself even renders it a subjective, individual experience.
Maybe the reason we turn personal value scales into universal ones sheds light on a deeper human truth. Maybe we aggrandize our experiences to fill a void of unworthiness. Maybe we need to define people as the “other,” the lesser, the unworthy because we believe that there is a definitive right and wrong, good and bad, and we fall on the latter side of both those dichotomies.
If art is expressive, if it is meant to deepen our awareness through that expression, to help actualize the artist and change the viewer, how can we say which one thing is better than another? With the infinite diversity of people we encounter even just on a daily basis, how can we ever believe that just one thing is best at affecting them all equally, therefore rendering that art great?
The point is: without realizing it, we determine what’s right and wrong from a creative standpoint through the experiences of other people. There is no art that is greater or lesser than another. There can be art that affects us personally to greater or lesser degrees, but that’s all.
What the delineation of “good vs. bad” does for the world of art and expression is that it limits a large majority of people from ever enjoying and experiencing things fully. From how simply we scoff at those whose music interests are different than ours to how complexly we find ourselves compelled to follow the beaten path because individuality is something that is feared and avoided as it may not result in that pre-determined arena of what’s “good” or “best.”
Whether we mean to or not, we stunt people from experiencing and creating art that moves them. We deprive them of the opportunity to do that which art intends: to learn, grow, change, expand, express. To be touched, to seek beauty, to find themselves as uniquely in the crevices of their abstract art as they can in the pages of a piece of popular fiction. This is how we create people who are distinct, amply aware of their own paths, and not fearful of exploring them deeper. Not being afraid of one’s own expression is the only way to the acceptance of oneself. And it is this self-acceptance that is missing from those who feel the need to tell people that their form of human expression, beauty, enjoyment, movement, experience, is somehow less than theirs.