Impractical

It’s been a few weeks. Bad blogger!

I return! Better late than never.

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what art means to me. Aside from sounding like the title of some kind of high school essay, What Art Means to Me, is a subject I think has the risk of sliding into massive pretension. Someone poke me with a stick if I get highfalutin’ here.

My first released novel, “Hunter and Seed,” and the sequel to it I am currently writing, were both inspired by the use of art as an integral part of the magic system. However, I think this makes the portrayal of art within the book a bit more practical in feel, compared to the way art is in our world. Art as a pragmatic product is definitely present in our world, but art as a tool for other tasks is something of a stretch, hence: a magic system.

I guess my mind went back to one of my favorite bands this morning. That band is Porcupine Tree. Their work covers a pretty wide swath, ranging from old-school psychedelic prog-rock (Like Pink Floyd) to progressive metal, to some of the darkest electronic punk music I have ever heard. One of the reasons I enjoy their work is the sense of variety. That-said, I gravitate toward their heavier albums. Yet, it is the moments on those albums where the quiet stands out that I really remember. Their album, “In Absentia,” is great as an example both of variety, and of contrast between loud and soft sounds.

All compliments to Porcupine Tree for their work.

Really it is no wonder, “in Absentia” is one of my favorite albums by this spiny tree.

Back to art, and the purpose of that which serves no practical purpose. At its heart, I think art is impractical. Impracticality can become an obstacle for the story, but I like to see it as an invitation. This invitation can promise different things, but often represents a kind of comfort. And how does one become comfortable with a piece of art?

Sometimes on savors it, immerses in it, lives with it over time.

The epic poems, so long as to take days to recite. From memory. A more recent epic, “The Faerie Queene,” by Spencer, which remains unfinished because of its sheer scale. Still more recently, the works of authors like Tolkien, Martin, and Sanderson fill this role. One could become lost in their vast stories without a firm guide.

And yet, investment in work do not happen solely because they are large. And this is hardly the only way to emphasize the impractical nature of art. The opposite is also true, as I am coming to learn.

Would you say it is impractical to try to communicate a lifetime in ten pages? I would. Or would you say, an entire human attitude, and everything they have lived for several years, could be incorporated into a five-minute song? That seems to me an ultimately difficult exercise.

For every massive epic, there are likely a dozen songs that encapsulate a tone of something far longer than they themselves.

Enter, Stan Rogers, a Canadian folk singer from the late middle of the 20th Century. I first heard Rogers’ most famous song, “The Mary Ellen Carter” a few years ago during a period of deep depression. A friend sent me a link to the youtube video to help cheer me up. I don’t remember if it worked at the time, but since then, I have fallen head over heels for the man’s music. Let me focus on one particular song. “Forty-Five Years.”

This song is one of Rogers’ love songs. But it is quite atypical as love songs go. The speaker for the song is clearly an older individual, as is the woman who attracts him. Most of the lines in this song encapsulate large spans of time or hint at events that, while not fully explored, provide context to the speaker’s feelings.

Take these lines from the chorus, especially the first one.

“You say you’ve been twice a wife
And you’re through with life
Ah, but honey what the Hell’s it for?”

These lines describe someone exhausted by the world, someone tired of loss. But that first line gives us the context of why this is the case. A character emerges, not fully formed, but greatly informed to us by a single line. And what is more, the song is less than four minutes long.

Stan Rogers captures more than the essence of the speaker’s feelings in this song. He presents a tone far different from most of the love songs I heard growing up in the 90s and 2000s. An attitude of hope, despite despair, and along with it, the source of despair. Human failure.

So, what does this have to do with the meaning of art?

A lot, as it turns out. We humans pursue all kinds of goals in our lives, and even if the results of these goals do not stand the test of time, they are important to us while we work for them.

Like the beautiful and transient mandalas crafted by Tibetans Buddhists, the world we build exists to be torn down. Ultimately, every action we perform could be considered futile because of its temporary nature. Yet, we strive anyway. Even the monks who believe in the ultimate impermanence of all things have goals. The Dalai Lama, if you believe in reincarnation, has the goal of returning to serve in every generation until all beings are free of their worldly shackles. And yet, impermanence is central to his belief system.

Like in the Book of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity and grasping after wind.

Like in the Heart Sutra, where one of the teachers recounts the hollow nature of all things.

Philosophies of this kind can be difficult for me to accept.

So many artists want to build something that will outlive them. Many have achieved this, at least for a time. I used to think this way.

My response to the Heart Sutra has changed over time. At first, I fought against the ideas, because they make life seem pointless, and make art seem yet more pointless. But what is the ultimate impracticality? To build a sandcastle where the tide will sweep it away. To write a story that will one day be forgotten.

Life is impractical, and art mirrors this fact in an obvious fashion. Even if, unlike the mandala, the destruction of your work is not intended, it is, after a fashion, inevitable. Somehow, this feels liberating to me at the moment. I don’t know if I am conveying this, but I love the moments, the brief flashes, of creation. We build sandcastles because the act of building is fun or satisfying, even though we know the waves are coming.

It is ultimate freedom to know that your mistakes will be forgotten with your successes. That is not to say nothing matters, but perhaps we can be emboldened by the temporary nature of our construction. Time will destroy our work, so what’s the worst that can happen?

Personally, this attitude adjustment (As my father would call it) provides me with a kind of ecstatic bliss to practice more. The word “practice” is key. In the end, art is not so much about product, as it is about practice, at least for the artists, the writers, the musicians.

Every moment of practice may work toward a goal, but when we love what we do, those moments can be our purpose as much as any practical result.

I hope I illuminated some ideas for you in this post. Failing that, perhaps you will enjoy one or both of the songs shared here.

Thanks for reading.

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