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David and Art - Communication is Key

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Communication is what holds society together, but words don’t always have to be the medium.

George Orwell once said that “aesthetic enthusiasm” was one of four motivations upon which every writer draws. The perception of beauty in the world, he said, or in words themselves and their right arrangement, leads to an overwhelming desire in an artist to share “an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”

I think it’s helpful sometimes to think of art and what artists do in terms like this. It reinforces the fact that art of all kinds is an attempt at communication. At substantive communication in fact, and through a particular medium—painting, music, dance, poetry—chosen because nothing else would do.

By the way, touching down on this gives us a good chance to abandon that old tired yes-or-no question of “Is it art?” These days that gets us nowhere. A much more evocative question that gives us real clarity about what we’re encountering is “Is this art communicating to me well?” Next time you go to the museum try that one on. It will change the way you approach everything.

A couple of weeks ago I went to hear a group called the Maria Schneider Orchestra play, and over the course of the tunes, one by one, players would stand up and play a solo: a sax, a trombone, a trumpet. Against the backdrop of the tune itself–the overall context of the communication–you had individuals stand up and express to you their reactions to what was going on. As I sat and listened and watched, it reminded me of nothing so much as the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. The medium of music is obviously far more abstract than language, and the stakes were not as high, but the communicative aspect was just as vivid.

Approaching art from this angle is one of the things that can draw us, as spectators and non-artists, more clearly into that world and into the ongoing conversation. Every artist you know, from Rembrandt to Bob Dylan, from Joan Mitchell to Viola Davis seeks to make manifest and shareable the whole catalogue of human emotions and perceptions. Art is how those things are shared.

Getting this is what can turn you into an arts enthusiast. Because interest in the arts is not the exclusive possession of artists alone. It can reach into the lives of everyone who looks and listens. Even if you’re not an artist you can still feel that electricity when you encounter it, and that keeps you attuned to its importance for all of us.