Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “aesthetics:” “Concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty; Giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty. Basically, it’s the study of art–its creation (by the artist), and its appreciation (by the one who loves art).
One thing about art: it’s not real. It’s artificial. A mountain range may be magnificent, an ocean sunset may be gorgeous; but neither is art. They’re natural phenomena that we have played no role in creating.
We do, however, as human beings, have a compulsion to create. An artist sits on an Appalachian mountain and paints the sunset. She doesn’t take a picture of it; she uses brush strokes. The mountain on the canvas—it could be realistic, it could be abstract, it could look like a bad Picasso ripoff—is not real. It’s a reflection of the artist’s own thoughts, emotions, rumination, and craft. Some may think you have to be a god to make a mountain. I dunno nothin’ about that, but I’m pretty sure the only beings around here (on this planet) that can create art are people.
And only a few people. Very few people.
But, all of us can try. I mean, what’s the risk?
My overall aesthetic, that is, what I look for in a piece of art (in this class, writing): does the writing affect me in both a visceral and intellectual way? This takes on the notion of “bleeding on the page.” I might write a sonnet on how my mother used to beat my father (that didn’t happen, by the way, nor the other way around). There is already a danger: a sonnet is a difficult poem to write; and my emotions regarding my parents may be too strong, even in recollection, for me to make a real, honest-to-goodness sonnet. The emotions have taken control of the poem. So, it’s not a poem. It’s fourteen lines of memory, horror, tears, rage, and hopelessness. But that’s it. It’s not poetry.
A person might want to deal with childhood pain, or a breakup, or any other situation when we make others suffer. The best way to do that is with a psychologist, a friend, a relative; or even better, confronting the person who pulled the shit on you.
A writer is not just interested in emotion, but style/form/substance. In fact—and you really need to make an irrational jump of logic to take this in: For the writer, the form itself is more important than the theme. That sounds very cold. It is cold. Whoever said writers were nice people?
But that coldness, that certain artistic distance, is what makes a piece of writing come alive.
All that said, writing in such a way is an arduous, painful, doubt-riddled, at moments self-loathing act that, if you don’t want to put yourself through the pain (you will experience a little bit in this class), walk away. BUT: I will also say that I love writing so much because it is the most difficult taskmaster I have ever had. I feel more alive for doing it, even when I fail.
Writing for me began with dealing with emotional and physical pain. I discovered that, when I wrote something down that was bothering me, the writing relieved some of the pressure in my head. I kept writing. The more I did, the more I went from “I got to get this crap out of my skull!” to “Hhmm. . .how can I express this image, of a man breaking a woman’s cheekbone with a toaster and their little boy watching?” (again, this never happened to me).
Not all art is born out of human pain—though pain is probably in the mix. Some write out of joy, rapture, true happiness. I guess. But who, for instance, wants to read a happy novel?
An artist needs materials to do her art: paint, brushes, a pen, a computer, chisel, lots of paper; whatever genre she works in, she needs specific tools.
She also needs time. And lots of it. Because art takes a lot of time. A literary artist—one who writes books that aren’t pulp fiction or romances, but a work that is aesthetically pleasing and challenging and can be read over and again—needs huge hunks of hours, days, years, to create.
The problem today is, we like to keep busy, even when we don’t have to be. But consider our ancestors from way, way back: you’d think that they were too busy hunting down food or running away from panthers, to make much art. But just check out some of the incredible, beautiful, moving paintings found in caves throughout the world, wrought tens of thousands of years ago–Art has been with us since our beginnings! And they weren’t just drawing pretty pictures–they painted images of their own daily struggles–hunting, being hunted. They survived; and through their art, we see that they wanted to do much more than just exist.
There is this fundamental need in the human condition to express oneself. Our lives, our experiences, the way we look at the world—we want to share that with others. And some get really good at painting a mural or, for this class, writing a story, a poem, a literary essay.
A literary work is the antithesis of the internet. The web gives you lots of information, some that might be real, most that is crap. We’re running around with a lot of info; but the internet can’t give you one ounce of wisdom.
Wisdom takes time. It needs other people to chime in—people who also seek out wisdom. It needs not only experience, but the ability to ruminate on experience and see it more deeply than just the surface information. Books are one tool of the wise person. Books—the good ones—take us into the deeper parts of ourselves and our societies.
We all live busy lives. Well, actually, no, I don’t; I’m a writer. I try to keep my life as simple as possible, because it’s the only way I can truly think. The more I consider our society, the more I see how frantic, distracted, and afraid it is. More than ever. We keep ourselves busy every damn second of the day with tweets, Instagrams, Facebook, Tinder, Snapchat. These instruments might have value; family and friends who live far away from one another can keep in touch on a regular basis. That’s a really great thing. But that same media can keep us from looking at ourselves. We’re afraid of what we might find. There are so many fears inside the brain, but we refuse to look their way, because we’re not sure we can handle them. We don’t want to go there, to the place that has a touch of chaos to it.
For example: Death. How much do you consider your own death? That’s a subject few people want to face. But death plays such a role in defining life. It’s something I believe we should consider from time to time: death reminds you that you’re still alive.
It’s a tough one to look at. I don’t like it either. But, there it is.
An artist, however, looks death straight in the face. A writer goes to that place where we don’t want to go. She does it through aesthetics: she creates a poem that might have horrors, emotional suffering, lost loves. Through her poem, we’re able to visit that chaotic place safely. We can feel the horrors without the fear of being swallowed by them. Reading the poem can bring us to a deeper understanding of the human experience.
Of course, since she must go to that chaotic place to bring it to us, the writer might not come out of it completely unscathed.