Self-expression is a problem.
Let me rephrase: Self-expression is an endeavor that depends very much, both for its justification and in its outcome, on what we refer to when we say the self.
A human being, from one perspective, is a factory for producing feces. You may laugh, but this is indeed a creative process as creativity is now understood. A person takes pre-existing materials of nature or artifice, internalizes them, and finds a new way to rearrange the parts. No two people would do it in the exact same way, given that the experience, particularly the challenges, of each individual is unique. Finally, one excretes the remixed result and puts it on display for the public.
Art is self-expression, and that we find the contents of our commodes less appealing than Rembrandt is a matter of close-mindedness and limited taste. This is an internally consistent way of looking at art, but it, of course, renders “art” a completely useless category of assessment. Some are comfortable with this; for them, words maybe have no meaning anyway, and “knowing what they like” (the perennial defense of private personal taste) is sufficient to determine “art” from excrement.
For the rest of us, there’s an easily-applied lower bound for art: It does not merely require self-expression or creativity. Feces is only self-expression in its lowest sense, the product of a living body’s interface with edible matter, and not the higher product of it, either (assuming, again, that we have some sort of standard by which to declare excrement the “waste” of the process, a value judgement if ever there was one). Rather than these physical realities, we can limit art to the realm of thoughts and feelings.
Thoughts and feelings, that’s art! When I drek those out on a piece of paper, world take notice. No one has my exact thoughts and feelings, my struggles, and when that unique identity plays off my unique experiences it gives birth to a steaming pile of paint or ink or vibrating sound, ready for consumption. When I place it before you, you must meet me, must partake of the bouquet only I could have prepared, an arrangement of flavors straight from my soul.
For example, I could write tonight about politics, and morons, and President Trump, and if I really thought about it I could find an angle you wouldn’t hear elsewhere, neither left nor right. You couldn’t blame me for doing this. It is something I have had thoughts and felt feelings about. It would be very personal, and I would have complaints. No, this would be perfectly within my rights.
But would it be any good?
Well, there’s two standards by which to judge the thinky/feely art, two legs upon which stands the stool. The first is whether it changed anyone else’s thinking or feeling. If it makes someone literally shake, or elicits a “stunning,” or moistens their eyes, it’s a winner. If it pulls forth a “deep” or “my thoughts exactly,” all the work softening those ingredients was worth it. Indeed, even if it or the process of making it makes me feel or think differently, that is enough from the pose of humility. The second standard is authenticity. You can’t try too hard or use skill too far beyond the natural, and these things get in the way of pure thought or feeling. The key is to draw from deep inside you and put out exactly what you have for yourself. Don’t pee on their leg and tell them it’s raining.
My piece on Trump’s worrying new take on the sad old game of taking power in the nihilistic void of modernity (plus how really worried or sad this really makes me) would be more-or-less a winner, at least for myself. If I implied how a traditional power structure, say, Orthodox Judaism, was in some way responsible (I’d put “struggle” in the title), it might even get shares.
It’d still be sewage though.
And I know some ripe excrement when I smell it. I smell it all the time. Every time I check Twitter or (lord help us) Facebook. It is common discourse. It is thoughts and feelings as they pour out of us with more-or-less forbearance into the world. They mix and match ideas we find from different places. They express our selves. They are the human world layered upon that controversial world of the brute facts, and all day teeming humanity chews and swallows and regurgitates and remixes and snapchats and tumbles and memes and opines. And those who can make us cry or incensed or thoughtful are more-or-less the artists. Slap on a nice new label like “creatives” and call ’em special and buy ’em a ticket to Boulder or Santa Fe or Brooklyn.
What, you may be wondering, would I like? What do I expect? Thoughts and feelings are profoundly human, they’re what make us us. If what we normally call art shares similarities with the natural output of humanity, then so be it. At least we have effect and authenticity to divide pearls from swine.
Indeed, to expect something more upsets many people. It is elitist and snobbish and, worst of all by far, inauthentic. You see, if there’s something more than thoughts or feelings, if art is in some category quite separate from regular thoughts and feelings, this means that effectiveness and authenticity prove nothing. It means that whether it makes us weep or makes us think is irrelevant. And if we believe our minds and hearts are what we are, it attacks the very frame of our existence; in some sense, authenticity to thoughts and feelings is life, and to attack their expression is to attack the self. Our thoughts and emotions, if elevated to the ultimate reality, bind us as surely as gravity does. This is the way I am, this art is me, I have me down on paper now. Indeed, it has even been asserted that any art which claims to be something more than the inevitable flawed product of experience, biology, and feelings/thoughts is a liar.
But is this true? What else can there be?
There is ineffable truth, the unimplementable good, the great mystery.
Beyond the compulsions of current events, actions, politics, and beyond the bounds of appearances, fleshly bodies, and the apparent ugliness of nature lies something higher. Beyond our truths, so categorically expressed, sits the truth, and it is a truth we can only express through lies.
Art is self-expression that transcends expression, a story that never claims to be “true” and thus tells the ultimate truth. If The Brother’s Karamazov or War and Peace could tell the truth in any fewer words, they would, but they cannot. Because life is what we think and feel but also something else, because we are not feelings or thoughts, Bernini’s sculpture is of a king or a god but is of something else entirely.
And that’s why there’s art. Because life itself — politics, family, relationships, religion, and the rest turn to dead stone, fail to point like arrows to the unspeakable and the ephemeral, to that which cannot be named except in thousands of words. The work of art winks at us and says, “I am not mere self-expression, not a mere extension of the world. I am a secret compass, a self-erasing word. I am an entity designed by every tool of the craft to, upon being myself, cease to be myself, but to convey the secret whose name lies buried with the prophet.”
True art tells us that the common “self” of self-expression is not the truest reality, that our thoughts and feelings do not truly bind us, that we are something more that our likes and dislikes and our acquired realities.
When we run into art like this, it tastes different. It is not caught up in the petty and the temporal; it does not mistake the “self” for the mood of the moment. It is not thoughts and feelings demanding we cede the ground of our own existence to make room for their truth. It merely is, the way the moon is, the way an equation is. It is not an argument for something; it is the thing itself, instantiated, and in the instantiation the thing itself must hide.
And we must stalk it, like tiger, tiger, burning bright. With the right eye to see and ear to listen, we may hear the dulcet and harmonious breath, we may shoot from our spheres which tether us to the heaviness of our well-known selves, and we may finally, finally, get our art together.