Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Bright Side of Obscurity

I have been known to spend some time on a certain on-line photography forum, one in which photographers, would-be photographers and wannabe photographers all congregate to rate and critique each other's photos. As part of this judgmental sort of communication, I often hear the word "artistic" bandied about by people who think they know what it means. They will make comments like "this might be good as an artistic photo" or "if you don't center the subject this will look more artistic." They seem to know what "artistic" looks like.

And how exactly does one know what something looks like? By having seen it before, of course! They think they can recognize "artistic" the same way they recognize a landscape or a portrait: by comparing it to what they've already seen. For them, the appreciation of photography is a matter of pattern recognition, and that's where the pleasure comes from, much like the pleasure of recognizing a friend in the public square, an anticipation of a comfortable, comforting experience.

Is this what you want your art to be? In striving for popularity, that is what you strive for: the creation of something familiar. True art, true poetry, is the opposite. It is an attempt to create something utterly unfamiliar. This is the only way to achieve anything spiritual, otherwise your audience will never leave the comfortable realm of the material, where they comfortably understand everything around them, comfortably pigeonholing every experience. This is, after all, how we survive the chaos of existence. Otherwise, our brains would be overwhelmed, we would be unable to consume, to produce, to obey. Society would crumble. Why do you think poets are so often persecuted? They try to untie the fragile, self-contradictory knots we are using to hold our world together in our tired brains.

So when people talk about the disgraceful unpopularity of poetry in the United States, I can't help but think of the bright side. I see it as the failure of our society to pigeonhole poetry, to make it a comfortable, familiar experience. Perhaps that is a sign of the success of our poets.


Blogger SarahJane said...

nice post. "this is what artistic looks like" may be the new left-handed compliment.


12:37 am  

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