What makes something a great work of Art? ('Art' meaning all things creative - music, painting, poetry, craftwork, etc )
It’s a question that has been on my mind a lot recently. I started my life as an art and English (American and British) literature student. I’ve learnt all about stanzas and iambic pentameter, layout and perspective. I’ve learnt a lot of theories and concepts, but that was a long time ago and most of them have flown out my head over the years. On the whole I’m rather glad they have, because in my opinion that means they’ve left space for what really matters - truth. To me what makes an artwork great is truth or, to be more specific, how much the artist has managed to express their own truth.
To explain that I need to explain why I dropped out of art college. I was in a life drawing class one day and we had just all been out for a break. Life Drawing was a full three hours and the models would need a chance to stretch and move and us students would all charge off to get a cup of coffee, or a cigarette. On this particular day we returned all chatting and I went and sat down at the wrong desk. In fact several of us sat down at the wrong place and I realised, when I tried to find my real place, that I couldn’t tell one drawing from another – they all looked the same. It shocked me because I could still remember how in the first few months every student had been different. We’d each had our own unique style, our own way of expressing how we saw the world – our truth. Now, after only a few extra months, we all were carbon copies of our lecturer’s style – he’d moulded us all into himself. It was a good professional art style, but it was his, not ours. Looking at my drawing I realised I wasn’t ‘me’ anymore… and it bugged me. Maybe I hadn’t been the best artist in the class, but at least I’d been myself. Now I wasn’t even that anymore.
A few weeks later the final year students held an exhibition and I went to take a look. The work was slick, professional, perfect… and utterly sterile. I had no doubt they’d all get jobs and do well, but I knew not one of them would ever be famous, because they all looked the same. If you’d taken the name tags off the exhibits you’d have never known who was who. There were no errors or flaws, but no individuality or inventiveness either. Perfect work, but no soul… a short time after that I left.
Another experience that proved the same point for me happened around the same time. The students were in the hall, preparing for a show. We were in there putting up boards and moving chairs when one student noticed there was a grand piano on the stage. She was an art-music student and tutored piano and guitar in her spare time. She climbed up onto the stage to try the piano out and played a perfect flawless piece of classical music. Another student (a friend of mine) said, “Hey, I know that piece!” and clambered up to have a go herself. She wasn’t as accomplished, she messed up several notes, but she played with such emotion (Italian girl – they can’t do anything without emotion) that the entire hall full of workers, lecturers and students, stopped… and listened. It didn’t matter to them that her rendition wasn’t as accomplished, it only mattered that her version was the one that touched their hearts.
Since that day I’ve always understood what I look for in art and music, but only recently it’s occurred to me that I feel the same about poetry/writing. It’s all back to that word ‘truth’ – or to be more exact in the artist being true to themselves. If I can’t feel the artist in the artwork I’m not impressed. If you can’t be yourself in your own creations… then what’s the point? Creativity isn’t about ‘getting it right’ according to whatever standards the world might set, it’s about expressing your true self – your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Whether its cooking, painting or writing - if you create honestly and shared yourself truthfully, then in my opinion you have created a great work of art. ;-)