Calling All Artists, Thinkers, Writers

After going through my posts on the writing process, blogger Kevin commented that I seem to “write with intent rather than for ‘mere’ expression.” A lot of his poetry arose from the fun of it and the wish to express himself in a particular way. He also asked if I always analyze what I read, if I ever read just for the pleasure of it.

Which leads me to ask you: what is art?

First, the question on reading. I don’t pick apart to death everything I read – in part for the small matter of time. As for intent, let’s visit some accomplished artists. I would almost kill to be able to ask Michelangelo, “Can art be a whim? An accident?” Did he ever “merely” express? Can art be spontaneous? My right-brain readers are nodding away. Can art be discovery? The Sam Francis exhibit that once ran at the Pasadena Museum of California Art showcases some extraordinary work by a most interesting painter. “Paintings are my thinking,” Francis said. “Not about anything…They perform the unique mathematics of my imagination.” Is there then such a thing as chance in the art of mathematics?

Could we consult the Ancients in their wisdom? To this end, I veer off a bit to share some relevant thoughts on my blogging and the homeschooling that converged two years ago. A few months into the blogging, I came to see that what I’d been drawn to exploring on this blog were truth and beauty. Not long later in a seminar on Classical homeschooling, the speaker elaborated on the model I had chosen for our family; it was in essence about truth, beauty, and goodness. I was floored. We went on to hear a podcast featuring Andrew Kearn of the CiRCE Institute on the goal of education, which brought to light the meaning of the liberal arts. I’ve scaled it down to highlight some parts that bear on this post. Which of these insights resonate with your work?

geo-roundel-flower-13Liberal spawns from the Latin liber [free]. Without these arts, we cannot know the fullest extent of human freedom. The Hebrews and a good many of the Greeks were the only ones in the ancient world who believed truth is knowable. Freedom is intimately related to perception of the truth. Education is learning to see deeply into the truth or essence of whatever is before you – be it spouse or garden. To see beyond the “accident of it,” the things that come and go. The lost tools of truth-seeking are the liberal arts: the art of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric (which make up the Trivium of communication); and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy (the Quadrivium of calculation).


The Greeks looked at how people communicate. What leads the community to truth, to harmony? If a good man or woman speaks effectively, that is the glory of rhetoric. The mind wants harmony. Math is the ability to find this in the universe. If I tell you 2 + 7 = 5, you feel the disturbance in your mind. Astronomy is the study of shapes moving. Planet literally means wanderer. The Greeks discovered that when you examine the movement of the stars, you see patterns. Your mind can be disciplined and ordered to see things you cannot see any other way. Same thing for reading or learning another language. If you can’t do either, there is no way someone can get you there virtually. The way you know a scientific theory is by its beautiful harmony.

This approach to learning took my breath away. And it happened to dovetail this post I had been mulling over two months. What is art? To what extent is achieving harmony or articulating the essence of something the goal in your dance, your sport, your music? What is it about your painting that begs visual utterance? Do you find you’ve been in pursuit of ancient and timeless virtues? Beauty does not necessarily express happiness or cheerfulness. There can be great beauty in brokenness and sometimes, it is only among the ruins you find treasure. Years ago I looked regretfully upon some morose paintings by a gifted artist who had grown up in a nudist colony and believed she had a bipolar disorder. Her rich work was a window into a dark psyche. I felt they would reach her promise if her painful confusion were redeemed. I’ve said in The Writing Process, Part 1: Color that the darkness is an easy way in through the door of inspiration. But I now feel great art is more than bleeding all over the page.

Often honored as a process, art need not be defined by its product. But does a story not have a point? A reader quoted for me from My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn Hejinian, “the anticipation of the pleasure of making sense.” In my writing, this expectancy is the wee hours of dark that prelude the stream of dawn, the knowing stillness almost as thrilling as the satisfaction of breaking light on the landscape of my intention. The objective, to get across exactly what I’m seeing. Though a poem may sing in metaphor, should it not sustain a coherence that draws assent from the reader? Is art random? Take the greatest masterpiece we can name, the human body. Illness is simply disharmony. And the life in the womb: there is articulation, a little body forging ahead in full purpose. Though to elaborate would be another post entirely – indeed I find order, truth, beauty, goodness in our wondrous frame.

I’m thinking aloud for the answers, surveying the fields of virtuosity. Instinct whispers the difference between war and the art of war. There’s straightforward violence. Or the boxer who flails struggling at the level of technique, trying to get the moves just right. But observe the fighter who executes with fluidity the right tactic among all the possibilities in that moment, and be enthralled by elegance. Through my brief time in mixed martial arts, I came to see the brilliance in the problem-solving we call fighting. I now understand the sense and logic of the art. It is geometry – angles, lines, space in motion. Just shift and turn to create the space your opponent wants to deny you and make your way out. Fighting is chess. I love the Greek appreciation of AgatasGuitardisciplining and enlarging your mind to possibilities. The thousand drills you hammer into muscle memory are the tools for conceiving your art. The unspeakable beauty of ballet is borne of training and toil, from endless run-throughs that demand reflex and mastery. I agree with Miles Davis that more than the sight-reader, the musician is the one who can improvise. But you need to know the grammar of the music to be able to create at levels above, though some who have gone without the training find it by instinct. What I’m getting at is that art comes by merit. The endowment suggests a certain caliber of performance, of craftsmanship.

Which then incites the question whether something can be art at the elementary or exploratory stage. How about your kids’ fun on construction paper? We don’t hold up the canvas of children’s imagination against the expression of Monet’s, but isn’t there, shouldn’t there be a standard of measure within a given range of age or capability? Here I circle back to my beloved. Standard.

As I set out in my writing and my son’s learning two years ago (as it turned out, upon the same road), I accepted the guidance of the virtues named in the Classical world. As marvelous our fascination with the Minotaur, so we cheer Theseus on and breathe again when he rids Crete of the senseless terror. The living nightmare makes for a great tale but we don’t really want to live in fear and endless night. We hunger for the true, beautiful, and good because for these we were made.

Photo credits in order of appearance

193 thoughts on “Calling All Artists, Thinkers, Writers

  1. In case you couldn’t tell I’m bingeing on Holistic Wayfarer this morning – who is making me think about politics and art and beauty and what they all mean. I love that the pillars of truth and beauty are at the foundation of your work and your life. It is interesting- what is art and who gets to decide? I am all for free flowing expression but as both my writing and acting teachers have said there is also the craft that turns that expression into something deliberate. Yet some of the beautiful moments captured anywhere burst forth onto the stage and the page from utter spontaneity- although some will say that craft allowed for that freedom to happen. I loved getting to read you process/think on the page.

    • ” there is also the craft that turns that expression into something deliberate.”


      “from utter spontaneity- although some will say that craft allowed for that freedom to happen.”

      YES. I don’t see any real artist NOT knowing the thrill of spontaneous release. But underneath, even there was a knowing. And a reservoir of skills.
      I believe. Thinking aloud.

      =) Appreciate your engaging, D.

      • My sons played peewee football and as bad as soccer or basketball at that age (7 years old) is to watch football is the worst because despite its reputation as the sport for brutes, it’s actually a lot more complicated than other sports. The skills need to be practiced over and over for years before the elegance of a quarterback’s throw meets the timing and speed of a wide receiver’s. Yes, the intent and spontaneity are there at the beginning, but the beauty of a perfect throw or catch are years and years away.

      • Love it, Adrienne. What a great example. A mother’s tangent: I heard football is at least (surprisingly) safer than the other sports (as far as odds go( for all the padding.

      • I always laugh when I hear mothers saying they sign their kids up for soccer because it’s safe–not statistically–but I won’t try to convince them. Most little kids are so clumsy in their football uniforms they fall down without being tackled. My father refused to let my brother play football because he feared injury, then my brother broke his leg and had to be in a body cast for 6 months after playing a pick-up game of touch football with his friends. haha–he showed my father!

      • T hurts himself just sITTING at the table. Starts crying…he accidentally scapes his knee (it bled this wk) or bumps it really badly. Omg. I get so exasperated. (Except I’m as clumsy!!)

      • I actually slipped on a banana peel last year. The kids never let me hear the end of it. My mother told me to throw banana peels in the garden (she may have said in the compost). Anyway I missed the garden and didn’t bother to move it from the path. later I slipped (and fell) on it. I thought that only happened in cartoons. (This is a public service announcement).

  2. My taste and or appreciation, or dislike, for various forms of art will depend on m environment, too. I wouldn’t want something in the home that I could appreciate elsewhere.

      • Sure…I can appreciate that some of Picasso’s sketchings reflect hyper focusing on a particular form of man\woman “passion”, if u will. Many may only have one or two of his paintings come to mind, but the guy was also drawing what some would consider pornography. Others would appreciate his freedom to express sexuality. While I can appreciate and respect human emotions or passion, I would not want young kids to see a woman clearly performing oral sex on another since I can’t and do not control how every young person, outside of our home, will be educated on sex or the effect it may have. That scenario is to somewhat make a point…..maybe a love pile of primary contrasting bright colors slapped together on a canvas but it likely wouldn’t match the earth tone blends of our paint or furniture……concepts like that to hopefully understand why a piece of art can be appreciated under one circumstance but, perhaps, not under another one……we actually do have a beautiful vague and tasteful fine art nude in one of our bathrooms.

  3. The beauty of it all, lies in the fact it is different for everybody and therefore art in its purest form is an expression of each individual. For example, If you gave a group of musicians the words to a song they would all create different music. Isn’t that why life is so utterly amazing Diana.

  4. So rather than be long winded – after reflecting on this today here goes – I once asked a friend who had taught English Literature at a Midwestern School “What is the difference between fiction and literature” and her reply – simply “the reader” What is art – mine – my view would certainly never agree with the critics, after all are cave drawings really Cave Art, of course? Have you read The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwan … It is his reflection on the Rembrandt and the parable of the same name

  5. There need not be any divergence between art and craft. Unfortunately, the 20th Century strove to make art something higher, and craft something lesser. It’s a cruel cheat, that. Because the real treasure comes when the two meet in the middle.

  6. I like the dusty expression that art is a visceral reaction good or bad, it moves within it’s power to effect you. obviously some shock “art” is only meant to do just this, shock you….le negative! but even still, art must have an impact upon you. you liber Al 😉 to be free, what is the opposite but corporate wherein the rule exist to create a brand that sell… or some artist starve and what is truly creative isn’t what always sells. but where in corporate did i mention that it didn’t effect us …in droves…. thus would you pick your favorite corporate entity to be art? harmony I remember the math jokes that only conceptually could we do a two lus seven equals five because by the very rules! such wasn’t labels to produce any result but the stated one and thus since it wasn’t negative two plus seven equals five, the stated truth is false. but so is fools gold it’s far too hard to be gold however shiny metallic albeit the wrong tone of yellow… but referring in read between the lines corpora again which is prescribed and thus without a creative life yet still impacts us and this now notion of harmony where it’ll all be by the rules??? no, sometimes there is beauty outside what should be and it just is… not for the sawbuck nor egotistical reward, it just is…because art is the power to move a person.

  7. Interpretation of art will always vary amongst the reader. I loved your article here Diana, particularly this passage: “There can be great beauty in brokenness and sometimes, it is only among the ruins you find treasure.” xo

  8. A great read, and greatly appreciated. Thank-you for all the thoughts which your wonderful post has freed within me for leisurely consideration, while I walk these city streets tonight looking for some art of my own to send your way. Have a great day.

  9. Great post. I had been thinking about the question in the intro paragraph myself. What do you think of art being anything created without an obvious function in mind?

  10. Art is expression, and all sentient beings express. The artist is merely someone who expresses himself differently in a way that finds empathy in others, that compels his audience to pay attention. Two painters can create a portrait but only one can bring the paint to life. Two people may write about a woman crossing a street, but only an artist will engage the reader in that mundane process and hope she will reach the other side safely. As such I am afraid I believe art to be a gift, a talent – not something that can be acquired or learned. Though each of us may possess it to a degree, only in a precious few will it sparkle and inspire. Technique is the afterthought, valuable but wasted without the original spark.

    In my mind music is the greatest form of art: I have known many people who can play, but only a few worthy of listening.

    • I don’t know if it’s become vogue to insist we are all artists and that some of us just need some more training or if this is an timeless claim. But I appreciate the examples you provide to the contrary: “Two painters can create a portrait but only one can bring the paint to life.” Technique is definitely something distinct from art but the magic is when the two blur. Even as a musician I’m not sure we can say any one form is the greatest form of art, but I can certainly see why you would feel it is so. =) Appreciate the three cents, FA.


  11. thus would you pick your favorite corporate entity to be art? harmony I remember the math jokes that only conceptually could we do a two lus seven equals five because by the very rules

  12. “Art is a process and need not be a solution or product.”

    Make it simpler: Art is bringing order out of chaos. Which of course provides some harmony and harmony is in the eye of the creator, beholder, etc.

    I love your explorations and reminders on truth, beauty and harmony. Three things we really crave even more in an information overloaded world. Liberal arts does often get hammered down by the technocrats..without them realizing that they couldn’t function well without truth, beauty and harmony, even in their own geek world.

  13. What I wouldn’t give to spend some time inside that brain of yours. Your depth of knowlege in so many arenas is humbling – yet, you remain humble. The best of all worlds, Diana. You are a gem and I’ve so enjoyed spending some time with you this evening. Hope your summer is off to a great start. xo

    • Gosh, the time you spent here tonight. Go drink in some fresh air or something. =) I seriously think you guys give me way more credit than I deserve. Thanks so much for being here. Was thinking of you!


      • I’ve had a lot of fresh air this week. I’ve been away for far too long. It’s nice to settle in and see what’s up. Thanks for thinking of me – I think of you often, too. xoxoxo

  14. As I read these words, now, four years after you wrote them and in our current awful situation regarding man’s humanity to man: “We hunger for the true, beautiful, and good because for these we were made,” I hunger for these things even more. And am so glad you’ve founded your family on them. We need more of that . . . and more again.

    • Construction sites are often the locus of accidents, and we often break things in the building (gerund, not concrete noun) and find ourselves having to smash and rebuild. But God wastes nothing.

      Been thinking of you.

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