What is ‘Artistic Purity’?

Art is weird.

Entire University faculties are dedicated to the multitudinous ways that art is weird. Probably the weirdest thing about art is the sheer, impractical unreality of it. If I write a story, I am essentially lying to you (particularly since I’m a fantasy author). The things I write about, in most cases, never actually happened and would probably never be able to. Not only is that OK, in this instance, that’s actually the point. People who like to read will actively go through multiple people’s lies and choose their favourite liars, and wait anxiously for these people to produce more lies for them.

The artist is in sort of a weird position in society, then; People like to look at the inventions of other people, but how is the artist supposed to tell what a “good” invention is?

Partly, of course, they can look at what other artists are doing that people enjoy, but then, copying too directly from other sources makes the audience less likely to enjoy the art. ‘Genre’ seems to occupy a sort of sweet spot between ‘experimental’ and ‘derivative’, and that’s where most popularity seems to be had.

Which then brings us to the question: What should an artist’s goal be? Is it to be popular, or to be original? Phrased a less leading way, is it to get your art and its message to as many people as possible, or to express your message in exactly the way you wanted it expressed?

The classics assure us that if you do the latter, the former will follow, even if it is not for many years or after the artist’s death. Modern thought says you can’t do both – either you must be a ‘sell-out’, pandering to genre convention, or a Unique Artist and never the twain shall meet. Popularity precludes truly original thought, as you must adjust your creative vision to cater to what audiences like and expect. Originality, on the other hand, is niche and usually requires more thought to decipher than the average work of genre, which means that it will never be as popular.

The hybrid view – that the best way to be a successful artist is to understand convention and use expectations to embed originality – is relatively uncommon, and seems in my experience to be restricted to genre writers and readers, though I don’t have a large enough sample size to say that for sure.

Different people have different opinions, of course, but to answer that question, first you have to form your opinion on what art is actually for. Not what art is, necessarily, but why we make it and what we expect to get from it. Is your art making a statement, or is it just entertainment?

Ha. Trick question. The more we learn about art, the more we learn that “just entertainment” doesn’t really exist, and no artistic statement in the world matters if the audience doesn’t want to look for it. Let’s try again. Do you expect people to engage primarily with the themes, symbolism and metaphors in your art? Or do you expect them to engage primarily with emotions, experiences and sympathies? I say ‘primarily’ because it’s possible to engage an audience on multiple levels, and to use one type of engagement to strengthen another. It’s also hard to draw a clean divide between popularity motivation and honesty motivation. While popularity motivation for fame or money is common (and legitimate!), and usually the motivation people think when an artist says they want to be famous, what about an artist motivated by the desire for as many people as possible to receive the message in their work? The artist who wants to change society? Admittedly, it’s harder to find artists who believe in artistic integrity over popularity for any reason other than integrity for integrity’s sake, but that’s not really surprising. It tends to be a rather unyielding stance to take about art.

Now! Once you’ve figured out what you want people to get out of your art, it’s time to play pin-the-value-judgement-on-the-philosophy!

Are you the sort who believes in the superiority of art created with a message or ideal in mind? Art created to express a truth about Society, and to make the reader think about the problems that truth causes? Here’s a question: Do you include propaganda in that value judgement?

Why not? Obviously whether you agree with the purpose or not has to be immaterial to the judgement, because it’s too subjective. Then, do you exclude works from being art based on who wanted it created? Are commissioned works not art, because they’re not wholly invented by the artist? In that case, the classical artists must be an incredible source of frustration to you. Do you exclude propaganda on the basis of simplicity, or being heavy-handed? Do you also use the term ‘elegant simplicity’ to describe other works of art? What makes the difference between the two?

Well, even if Art With A Purpose isn’t better automatically better, we’ve all seen the drivel that gets popular. Popularity is clearly no indicator of quality in art, even if we detach quality from insight or social/political commentary. On a purely technical level, there’s a lot of very popular art with very little merit.

I bet a title just popped into your head, didn’t it?

But even those popular, but poorly executed, works can make a huge difference to people. Harry Potter was an extremely popular work that was very firmly a genre work. Technically, it was passable, but not excellent. And yet, for better or worse, among other things it gave an entire generation (possibly several entire generations) another way to talk about identities and personality. Don’t believe me? Try asking someone between the ages of 20 and 30 what their Hogwarts house is, and see how quickly the discussion gets in-depth, and how much you learn about them by doing so. I also talked before about how much the Harry Potter changed the landscape of the genre, which means it affected how publishers market books to different demographics, and thus how the industry understands particular groups of readers.

Not bad for a work of genre fiction.

The thing is, an artist can create nearly anything – original or trite – with honesty. There are pioneers of art styles who were playing around with what they already knew, or testing an idea that they were unsure would work, and have ended up creating something new that only they could create. There are pop songs about breakups without a single original concept in them, but that very clearly come from the depths of the songwriter’s soul. Whether or not the artist believed in the thing they were writing is entirely secondary to whether the message is conveyed successfully. I believe being popular has no bearing on art’s ability to make the audience think, and I cordially invite anyone who disagrees with me to go read any book by Sir Terry Pratchett.

It’s probably fairly obvious by now that I don’t believe there is such a thing as artistic purity. At least, not in the way most people see it. Honestly, I don’t think there is any goal for art that’s ‘worthier’ than any other. I don’t think creating art ‘to appeal to a higher understanding; is the best thing art can achieve, and I don’t think creating art ‘for people to enjoy’ is something to be ashamed of. Maybe it’s just my bitter genre writer showing. I don’t know where this idea that you can’t have interesting characters and an exciting plot and also thematic explorations of humanity came from and I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice with it.

Because I am a fantasy writer, and anyone who wants to take my complex and unnecessary symbolic imagery away from me is going to have to fight me.

4 thoughts on “What is ‘Artistic Purity’?

  1. Pingback: Artistic Freedom | Whimsy and Metaphor

  2. In a blog post I’ve written not long ago I defined ‘art’ as a form of one-way communication. True communication doesn’t exist if one of the parties (in this case the artist) isn’t honest with himself and the other (the public). On the other hand, if an artist creates something he really enjoys doing, or gives him a sense of purpose, he confers some kind of energy, a ‘soul’, into his work. And that soul will eventually resonate with the right public.
    I don’t think the right public is hard to find. I mean, artists are humans after all: they must belong to one of the millions of subcultures this planet hosts, right? (Actually, this last sentence sounded like it was said by a Martian invader. Anyway.)
    Now, I define ‘popularity’ as the artwork’s ability to resonate, and interact, and change, as many people as possible. But that property doesn’t just depend on the artwork itself, but on their public. For example, would have Harry Potter changed a whole generation of readers if it hadn’t been backed up by intelligent marketing strategies or fanbases, which allowed other people to get to know the book?
    In conclusion, I think popularity depends a lot on people: the more people know your product, the more people know your product.

    • Definitely! I’ve always been a little leery of the idea of the soul of a work appealing to the universal humanity of the audience, but mainly because it usually seems to be so narrowly defined, and it discounts the fact that you really need to work to get people to see your art. Especially with the Internet, publishing is not a write-it-and-they-will-come business.

      I also think that more things appeal to more people than people expect. We tend to categorise readers so much nowadays because of marketing demographics, but I know there are so many different types of stories that appeal to me and most of my friends (and that make favourites lists) that having wide appeal isn’t necessarily about being Literary and Universal, or about hitting your niche. I haven’t formed solid opinions on what it actually is because I haven’t fully thought through this yet, but I know that I’ve been thinking about it wrong for years.

      So yeah, I agree, and your post is spot-on, and I think it reveals that we don’t treat appeal and audience in the way we should. Do you mind if I quote you in a blog post when I get my opinions sorted out?

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