I have to start by clarifying to everyone that I define art as any creation that deliberately provokes an emotional response from its audience. That’s not a universal definition, and it’s certainly not the one you’ll find in the dictionary, but it’s the best definition I’ve heard. So, that’s what I’m going with.
You might find that definition to be too broad, but frankly, art’s a broad concept. Dance, music, books, paintings, theatre, sculptures, poetry, comic books, movies, and video games all clearly qualify as art, and there are plenty more mediums where that came from.
The problem that I want to address here, is that at least one of those things made you cringe.
I understand. I really do. No matter what form it takes, art is only ever as valuable as the emotions it creates. Different forms of art are more effective at stirring emotions in certain people. This is why time and time again, art is called “subjective”. Emotion can be subjective. A death metal breakdown may not provoke the same rush of adrenaline in you as it does in your headbanging cousin, and sappy love poems may not pull on your heartstrings like they do with your significant other.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not asking you to like every piece of art that you come across. I’m just asking you to respect art, so long as it’s not deliberately supporting something that is objectively wrong. I know, it’s easier said than done. It can be extremely difficult to respect something that you see no value in; but there are always people who see value in each and every piece of art because it provoked some degree of emotion.
Emotion is important. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
Whether we like it or not, we are driven by emotions. They’re the foundation of our decision making and the basis for our perception of good and evil. We are compelled to vanquish things that provoke negative emotions and support the things that cause positive emotions. The pursuit of happiness is even enshrined in the United States’ Declaration of Independence!
Furthermore, the degree of emotion that we feel over a particular issue can have vast impacts on how humanity will respond to that issue. An excellent example would be the 2014 Syrian Refugee Crisis. It made headlines, and people were largely aware of the millions of displaced civilians, and the hundreds of people that died trying to flee from that turmoil; and yet, it was casually disregarded by so many people. It was out of sight, and out of mind.
That all changed overnight when people saw the photograph of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean. Suddenly, those refugees weren’t statistics from a faraway land. They were people who needed help. Why the sudden change? Emotion. Emotions provoked from a heartbreaking story.
Now obviously, the tragedy of Alan Kurdi and the Syrian civil war were not works of art, but this does clearly demonstrate the power of emotion.
With that tangent out of the way, you should now understand why emotion is important. By extension, you should have an understanding of the potential that art possesses. If that’s still unclear, then take a look at the social impact of such gems as To Kill a Mockingbird, Johnny Got His Gun, or 1984.
Now, those are just examples that demonstrate the significant potential for art, but not any ‘gold standard’ of art. Not all art teaches, nor should we expect that. There’s nothing wrong with simple catharsis, but that’s a topic for another essay altogether. We’re here to talk about why all art matters.
The reasoning is simple: emotions are powerful, and art deals with emotion. All art. Including that death metal song and that sappy love poem that I mentioned one gigantic tangent ago. In fact, for some people, those two mediums provide the greatest emotional experience they could ask for. Especially if they effectively capitalise on the strengths of their mediums.
Every medium of art has specific strengths and weaknesses. This makes each of them difficult to master, no matter how simple they may appear at first glance. But if an artist does manage to master a medium, the result will be something that captivates the audience in a completely inimitable way. Comic writer Alan Moore has spent his entire career trying to accomplish this, and some would argue that he succeeded with Watchmen. It’s also a common accomplishment in the video game industry. Let the steaming pile of failed Hollywood adaptations serve as proof.
The strengths and weaknesses aren’t tough to identify. Books have limitless potential because they can portray anything imaginable at a dirt-cheap cost, and the only constraint is the author’s capacity to articulate his or her ideas. The obvious drawback is the lack of visuals or audio.
Comic books gain the advantage of visuals, and the opportunity to create suspense using page turns. But the drawback to them is that the art has to compete with the narration and dialogue for space, forcing the author to search for a happy medium between those elements.
Video games provide a unique element of interactivity. When playing a story in a game, you are no longer following the story of a scripted character. You are the character, and I genuinely believe that you can learn a lot about a person by observing the decisions that they make in an interactive story. However, these are more than stories. They are also games, and that adds a new level of complexity and potentially alienating mechanics. Some people are just bad gamers, and it’s a shame that those people might never get to experience the full potential of a game’s storytelling abilities because of it.
For straightforward entertainment, movies provide the whole package. Sound, animation, and all the potential for an awesome narrative too. You just have to sit back, and hit “play”. The problem with movies is that they can be extremely complex. There’s sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of people involved in a single project. When dealing with numbers like that, a good story does not guarantee a good film.
And then there’s the matter of cost. In fact, the production cost has increased with each medium listed above. This budgetary obstacle is the source of many constraints in the film industry. Compressing a story for the sake of budget and runtime can have extremely detrimental consequences on said story. That’s why the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series was a failure. That’s why M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender movie was such a catastrophe (or at least, one of the reasons).
As I’ve stated before, every art medium has strengths and weaknesses. I’ve only just scratched the surface thus far. There’s still something to be said about the concise messages and flowing rhythms of poetry, or the up-close-and-personal atmosphere that a play provides. An essay could be made for each and every art medium, and the pros and cons therein. But this essay can only go on for so long, so allow me to finish with a conclusion to the ongoing theme of storytelling.
Even when trying to tell a story for non-artistic purposes, the conveying of events quickly takes the form of an art, and certain stories call for certain methods. A good writer will tell you that nothing is impossible, but a good writer must also be able to recognise the ideal medium through which to tell his or her story.
When I challenged myself to write a short story (the result of which was Bad Dreamland), I had an easy time coming up with ideas, but I wound up having a great deal of difficulty finding an idea that was best applied to a short story.
I myself still have a pleura of ideas that span over a diverse assortment of different mediums. Getting them off the ground will by no means be easy, but someday, I hope to share each and every one with you. There’s a lot of ways that plan could go astray, but falling victim to misplaced prejudice is possibly the most tragic of all.
We must not only recognise the value of art in all its forms, but also embrace them for their strengths while respecting their weaknesses. Unless we can all learn to do this, art might as well be divided into two categories: movies, and movies that haven’t been adapted yet.