Art has the ability to express emotions that words are incapable of relating.
I once heard songwriter David Crosby—of the group Crosby, stills, and Nash—remark that as an artist, his job was to put into words things that basically weren’t compatible with language. It was 2014 and he was speaking in the context of a medical procedure he had had and how, upon emerging healthy from it, he was, for the first time in his life, speechless at what the doctors had done for him. He said as an artist, he was completely unfamiliar with that feeling. It revealed to him the gravity of the situation he’d been through.
That quotation stuck with me. Indeed, it was a sign of his ability as an artist that he was able to grasp and express that role for an artist. It’s not just songwriters who do this. All artists take upon themselves the job of making communicable
that which is hard or impossible for the rest of us to communicate. Painters do this clearly. Look at the intimacy expressed in a Vermeer painting. Or at the other end of the spectrum, the grandeur of nature that Albert Bierstadt is able to capture and relate. Anyone who has looked up in the night sky and grappled with the vastness of the universe can understand our inability to express things. Sometime around 1804 poet William Wordsworth wrote “to me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Those thoughts, that we all have, often need an artist to quite literally explain them to us. In August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the characters have a debate about the blues—what that kind of music does for people—and Wilson the playwright has them voice observations that are very much in line with those of David Crosby’s. The blues, the character of Ma Rainey says, is “life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.” “The blues helps you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone.” Wilson is commenting here on the ability of art—in this case the blues— to convey messages and meanings that are beyond the scope of the regular ways we communicate, but involve feelings that we all universally experience. We’ve all had those moments that we feel an emotion that we can’t describe. Sometimes it’s a lump in the throat maybe; or a feeling so deep and powerful and majestic that we can’t encompass it with words. When we try to relate these emotions to one another and can’t do it, that’s when art can step in and help us understand ourselves and each other.