Dropped my husband at the airport this morning and on the way home, the Rolling Stones came on the radio. “Brown Sugar”. Suddenly I was dancing in my seat, feeling a whole lot younger, and singing along like a backup singer. Now, I love the Beatles. I think that they were true artists, having created new forms of music that spoke eloquently of the times they inhabited. But I crave the Stones.
What is it about pieces of music or dance or visual art that grab us in different ways? How does a personal response relate to a more general aesthetic judgment? Is it enough to say, “I like it?” Yes, it is enough if you’re bopping away in the front seat of your car, carrying along all the personal memories and experiences associated with the song. But no, it is not enough if you are trying to place the song in the history of music or even in the history of rock and roll. After all, my experiences are different from yours, therefore my personal criteria are different from yours.
My aforementioned husband wisely said to me many years ago, “Don’t try to be your own historian.” I try not to think about where my work fits in but I do try to figure out why I like some songs, paintings, plays and poems more than others. I’m starting a list.
1. Quality counts. It has to be well-crafted, using good materials (words are materials).
2. Skill counts. The skill of making (writing, composing, singing…) should look effortless, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that this piece is the way it is. It should seem inevitable but not predictable.
3. Accessibility counts. The piece must stand on its own. Even though the experience might be enriched by knowing more about it, there should be a lure, a hook, a pull that engages. When it works well, the song or painting or poem should land somewhere between where I am and where I would like to be. I should see something familiar and unknown and be encouraged to follow it where it leads me.
4. Magic counts. If I could really understand and explain why a piece of Art works for me…well, it wouldn’t be Art. It would just be something that could be explained in an algorithm available to everyone in an app. There is something unexplainable and unknowable in the real thing that is thrilling and important. That’s why we keep trying to capture it.
Images are hopeful tulips and their shadows and the products of the first glaze firing in my kiln!