The Artist’s Burden

The other night, I was having a discussion with a group of student writers.  We were discussing some of our usual topics: favorite authors, writing routines, pieces we are currently working on, etc.  One of us had brought a piece writing to share, I think it was a poem.  We all took turns giving our opinions and suggestions to the author and he sat there nodding thoughtfully, taking in our helpful criticism.  When we were done we asked him if we had successfully interpreted his poem, (we all compete to see if our interpretations come the closest to the author’s intention).  He seemed to be amused by this question, he laughed and said, “artists shouldn’t have tyranny over their work,” meaning, “whatever you took from the poem is right.”  Now, I may be mistaken but I can’t help but feel a little bugged whenever someone takes up this point of view on art.

Feel free to disagree with me, but when it comes to my writing I feel the need to defend as if it were my own child.  Maybe that analogy is too strong, perhaps I’d be better to say I would defend it as if it were my best friend.  I’ll stick by my friend, but if he’s wrong then I’m willing to correct him.  The same goes for my writing, if someone tells me something I have written isn’t good I’ll be willing to hear what failed.  What I won’t do is say something like, “that’s just my style,” or “you just don’t get what I’m trying to do,” and most of all I won’t say, “all interpretations are right” I’m not trying to be a snob, but taking responsibility for my bad writing is just as important to me as feeling proud of my good writing.

Furthermore, Shouldn’t artists feel strongly about how their work is perceived?  After all, an artists work is his creation, he owns it, meaning that it’s partially his or her responsibility for how its viewed.  If someone says, “I don’t understand what you are trying to say,” it’s partially the artists fault. The most common rebuttal to this point is “well once it’s out for an audience it’s there for them do with it what they like.” That argument just doesn’t make sense, the book or painting still belongs to the author and therefore it’s the artist’s responsibility.

If a toddler is running wild in a grocery store wouldn’t everyone say its the parent’s responsibility to control his or her child?  And if a company’s product is maligned by critics or the blogosphere, wouldn’t the company feel degradation for making an awful product?  Wouldn’t the company feel the need to defend or change its product? Why shoudn’t artists and writers feel the same sort of responsibility and stake in their art?

Whenever I show my writing to anyone, I always feel anticipation while waiting for the other person’s reaction. Will they like it? Will they get what I was trying to say? I have a lot at stake in these moments because how my writing is perceived will be a reflection on me?  If it’s good I feel a sense of pride, if it’s bad I can’t help but feel a little dejected.  That same sense of dejection doesn’t seem to be present in today’s writers and artists.

Toady it two very different kinds of writers and artists  get most of the work and attention.  Either you become wildly successful and make a great deal of money or you take what is considered the more intellectual road and create the avant-garde art that is easily parodied.  Granted, this isn’t universally true, there are artists that are wildly successful and create quality work, but it seems that most of everyone’s attention is devoted to these two types of artistes. I want to focus on the second case because it tends to be the kind of art that attracts people who are intellectually inclined.

Writers and artists that crave intellectual attention have had it easy for too long, and I blame the critics.  Too many critics are willing to validate art that is just plain awful. If you need an actual example, you can watch the video, “The Art of Nothing.”

In the video the, Hans Freeberling  has a gallery in which he says he is exploring the concept of “nothing,”  but what makes this video funny is that Hans Freeberling doesn’t exist.  The whole show is a big practical joke on the art community.  You’ll see that a lot of critics validate his work even though he hasn’t created anything. I understand that I’m bordering on the cliched modern art critique, “well anyone can do that,” and I know there are some responses to that argument but they’re all just begging the question. If I say anyone can do that it means that I think the artists hasn’t put a lot of thought into their work and it’s their own fault for my critique.

Writers and artists, need to start taking responsibility for their work, god or bad, and it’s the job of the critic to hold artists accountable for their work.  The, “it’s whatever you interpret it to be,” defense can no longer be a tolerated.  An artist’s work should be whatever he or she wants it to be, it’s up to the consumer of art to figure what the artist is trying to say not to impose an interpretation onto the product.  Furthermore, if people start holding artists responsible for their work and refuse to accept the “it’s whatever you interpret it to be,” line, I think it would elevate the quality of artists working today.

Maybe I’m wrong but when I see videos like, “The Art of Nothing,” I can’t help but sigh and wonder what Salvador Dali or Herman Melville would think of the state of literature and art these days.

All the best,

Sandor Mark


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