Albert Einstein worked to unite the forces of the universe under one “Theory of Everything.” I wonder if one aesthetic umbrella covers the arts—music and sculpture, acting and painting, photography and writing…and everything between.
Probably not. Saying what art is includes accounting for performing arts and visual arts and arts we don’t all label art, but that’s not quite the same thing. The proof of the Unified Field Theory is rigorous and mathematical, but possible. Aesthetics seem murky. We might not know we have the answer. We may never agree.
And usually the receiver—and more specifically and perhaps unfortunately the critic—defines art, not the artist. It’s hard to accommodate both artist and audience. The observer or listener can study the product and assert what a poem or song or sculpture or painting or performance is. For the artist though, the process seems mysterious, perhaps even mystical. The impossibility of definition, paradoxically, defines the process.
William Carlos Williams said, “It is almost impossible to state what one in fact believes, because it is almost impossible to hold a belief and to define it at the same time.” What he says of belief may be true of creation as well. Because discovery is central to creation, you only know it when you find it. Defining it later, like defining a belief, is hopelessly reductive, dubious. You may find a way to describe “it,” but that won’t say what “it” is. The descriptions can become the current mode of doing art—some tangible code to cling to—but they’re descriptions, conceptual rather than essential.
I’ve dabbled in most of the arts. I’ve acted and sung and played an instrument and made 2D and 3D art. I’ve written poetry, fiction, and (a term I loathe) creative nonfiction. For all that, I don’t have enough experience with creation to say I understand it. If I ever do, I may stop. The unknown is all the fun.
Having said so, I can’t resist venturing one probably pretty obvious universal aesthetic theory I learned from acting. Just as you can’t effectively play a character that isn’t in you, all art locates the universal in the personal and vice versa. To be clearer, I have to show something that you know too and do it convincingly. I have to show that I understand it and you must believe I do. You have to be convinced of my sincerity…even more than that, you have to be convinced that sincerity is my primary motive. An artist can achieve that state accidentally and/or intentionally. How it plays out in photography, opera, and abstract expressionism can be very different. But the effort to reach mutual understanding needs to be real. No posturing. No fashion-mongering.
Art isn’t about the skill, virtue, currency, or identity of the artist—truly great art makes connections over large spans of time and in disparate contexts…because it’s human. Being human, it can also be hopelessly subjective—artists and audiences and critics may never agree what’s good—but only the connection counts.
Art can have an agenda—”political” and “art” don’t have to be contradictory terms—but the passion behind a view and not the view itself comes first. Great political art moves you and may move you to action, but what makes something art and not propaganda is the artist’s need to express him or herself versus the need to have the viewer or listener think and act a specific way.
To finish with William Carlos Williams, ” It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.” We may never have a unified theory of art—never mind a sense of what’s good or bad—we can only hope to know it when we experience it.