Sunday, January 24, 2010

Art that Makes You Feel Something

What is the purpose of art? It’s a question that has been asked often, but is very hard to answer. For determining the purpose of art is like determining the purpose of furniture. It depends. Different art forms are created for different reasons. Art can be created to impress art critics. It can be created to entertain people. It’s purpose might be to spread a message or say something important.

There is one thing, though, that I believe a lot of art tries to do. It tries to make people feel something.

One way of doing this is by shocking people. There are those who say that it is getting more and more difficult to shock people these days. To a certain extent, this is true. A woman’s bare ankles used to shock people. Nowadays, we can be confronted with full frontal nudity without even blinking. But at the same time, shocking people is really very easy. Just ask the group that did the Jackson Five skit with blackened faces on Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday. Or the people in charge of KFC’s advertisement, where someone gives West Indian supporters fried chicken. They managed to shock a whole lot of people without even trying to.

Another way to make people feel something is to make them happy. Entertain them. Get them to enjoy themselves. Make ‘em laugh. Most of the art that tries to make people feel happy falls into the category of popular culture. It’s entertainment of the masses. It’s not really taken too seriously. As a side note, I find it quite strange that art that shocks is often considered more highly than art that makes people happy. Because I think it is easier to shock people than get them to smile. If I wanted to shock a room full of people, I could simply walk in there with bags full of rubbish and empty them on the floor. And to really increase the shock value, I could even mix the recycling rubbish with the general waste. But if I wanted to entertain them, if I wanted to make them smile, if I wanted them to enjoy themselves, I have to put a bit more effort in.

There are many different ways that art can make people feel something and these are just two examples. But they are also instances of where the feelings often are only skin-deep. Joy and anger can be something completely different. But shock and happiness tend to be surface feelings. Easily felt and easily forgotten.

And there’s nothing really wrong with this. Sometimes we just want to be entertained, without having to think or feel too much.

But in my opinion, good art makes you feel things a bit more deeply. It doesn’t just make you feel things on the surface. It seems to dig deep and touch your soul. It can make you feel alone or sad or uplifted or amazed or all of these things at once. And no matter what words you use to describe it, they never seem enough.

This is going to seem a strange story to tell. Because I am going to describe a situation that may have involved a movie, but isn’t really what I would consider great art. But even though it’s not great art, it’s the best way I can find to explain what art can do. One day, I was watching Bruce Almighty with my son – see I told you it wasn’t great art. But at the end of it, my son just started crying and crying. He couldn’t stop. The tears were just pouring down his face. So I’m kept asking him ‘What’s wrong? Why are you crying?’ And the only answer he could give me was, ‘I don’t know.’

And that’s what art can sometimes do to you. You can have such deep feelings and you don’t even know why. Not only is it difficult to describe what you are feeling, it can be difficult to even describe why you are feeling it.

I’m not sure what any of this has to do with faith or Christianity. Maybe it has nothing to do with faith. Maybe it’s just something interesting, but relatively unimportant, about human emotions.

A line came to me as I was writing that. ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.’ I didn’t know who wrote it or even why it would suddenly come to me. But I did a search on Google and found out that it was a quote by St Augustine. I’m still not entirely sure why that quote would suddenly come to my mind. But maybe, just maybe, it’s because art sometimes reminds us that we are restless. When we feel something deep inside, we are forced to confront the fact that, deep inside, we need God.

The idea for this post came when I was listening to an old podcast, from the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. A panel was discussing whether art should be dangerous. That wasn’t what got me writing though. Instead, it was the discussion about whether art should be shocking.

But in a way, it’s kind of appropriate. Because I think art should be dangerous. It should make us feel alone and frightened and uplifted and amazed. And those are all dangerous feelings. It should be dangerous because it reminds us that we are restless. It should be dangerous because it shows us how empty we are without God.

Art that is shocking is not dangerous. Art that makes you happy is not dangerous. Art like that is easily forgotten. But having to face your need for God. That can change your life. And what could be more dangerous than that?

(Image details: Michelangelo Buonarroti's The Creation of Adam. From the Sistine Chapel. Image is in the public domain.)

1 comment:

  1. A lovely piece thank you for sharing it with us, for me good art can be more about feeling than seeing. Having said that if I am not drawn to a piece of work by the aesthetics it has little chance of in captivating me



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