Wednesday, October 7, 2009
What is Art
Leo Tolstoy once asked: What is Art? Then he wrote a book about it which many philosophers, writers and educators discuss in supposedly sophisticated circles of knowledge. But what happens when you discuss this in a first year English course with a bunch of juniors in Lebanon’s University?
Weehaaaaa! -- your horses run wild ‘n you do the Macarena with a square dance on the side possibly contemplating a moon-walk too. Never underestimate the mind of nobody.
For Tolstoy, art is when an artist feels something – pain, happiness, sadness, wonder, confusion, frustration, then writes or sings as a result of that feeling. Then the receiver who comes across this piece of art later in time, perhaps hundreds of years later, looks at the piece of painting for instance and feels the exact same feeling that the artist felt when he first drew the painting. Infected, as it were, by the original feeling. Only now has the artist succeeded at his art.
Like the difference, if you will, between a Bush speech and an Obama speech, or a conference on genomes in biotechnology as opposed to a Che Guevara talk on humanity. One can use words to transmit thoughts or one can use words artistically to change people.
The critics of Tolstoy might argue that this approach to art is a selfish perspective because it really just says: “art is about me and me and me. Get it, or get out”. Deeper critics of Tolstoy suggest an alternative: “Feel the original feeling that inspired the creation of the song or the painting – sadness or happiness – and go and create a piece of art of your own, in other words, get infected by the art, or get inspired. Don’t turn into Tolstoy, just get inspired by him”.
Something like a soothing Qur’anic recitation by a beautiful voice that inspires faith and piety, or a talk by a believing scholar on the condition of the ummah at an MSA social, for instance. For Tolstoy, art transforms just like faith transforms.
I ask: “What if you read a piece of art that completely offends your values or beliefs that you hold very dearly. Will you allow the infection of art to happen?”
Like a Salman Rushdie book.
I tell the kids a story that happened to me. Once when I was in third year university, the professor assigned Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses”. For those unfamiliar with this work as were some of my students, Rushdie is a Persian writer who has lived in England for a long time. In his book, he took the figure of Prophet Muhammad who is an important aspect of the Islamic faith, and wrote of him as if a person who “sells” faith like a sales-person or a business man. Rushdie’s book is read all over the world except in the Middle East and the Khomeini had issued a ‘fatwa’ or Islamic ruling that allows for the killing of Rushdie because of this book he published.
When I went to class, a girl came up to me and said: “we can’t allow this book in class. We have to go to the Dean and report this. Nobody can read this book at the university”. Turns out this girl is Muslim and Persian too. I had no idea I had a Muslim classmate until that moment. After feeling puzzled, I tell the girl: “I’ll get back to you on that after I read the book”.
To enter a community of minds through art might also mean knowing more about yourself than about other people. What your values are, what your boundaries are: you might surprise yourself time after time. I told the students that I will reserve my opinion about Rushdie’s book when I read it, but the point is this: For Tolstoy, as a student eloquently put it, once you enter a community of minds, you will change and be changed. That is art.
But if you enter just to say your two cents and leave, then that’s just using words to transmit your thoughts. Something like a type-writer, or a Microsoft Word document, or like that person who sits at a gathering and talks with eloquent words, fluid sentences and perhaps a big word or two, and after 20 minutes of hearing him you kinda feel like that guy talked so much but said nothing. Even his thoughts he couldn’t transmit.
If anything I have learned that Leo Tolstoy’s dense philosophy tastes better when discussed in a first year English class, not all of them, just my noon class full of thirty bright young people. It is clear to see that this class has the capacity to receive, and the art to express.