Friday, August 7, 2009

#135 What Good is It?

This week's show is the second part of my thoughts about craft and art, this show focusing more art.

Right off the bat let me confess that not once did I get the title of the book by John Carrey that I keep refering to, which is What Good are the Arts. Terrible oversight on my part and while there is no defense let me repeat that the book and it's correct name is less important to my remarks than the thoughts and ideas that were spurred by it. With that in mind, here's a link to The Craftsman by Richard Sennett. I think it has a lot to say about methods of producing quality work for anyone, including filmmakers.

The great thing about having all these diverse sources of information and opinion is not so much the opportunity to learn as it is the ideas and where they take me, and the things I think and believe.

I generally find that I come to understand what I think and believe by saying it out loud, either to myself, to others or to you in this time shifted fashion. There's a monitor in my head as the words come out that evaluate the rightness of what I'm saying against what I think. Sometimes when they are at odds I find that what I have said is more true to what I believe than what I was actually thinking. The sense of smell and taste comes to mind as a comparable experience. Often they are very different experiences and one or the other will become the defining sensation.

So despite how dense, or confusing this all may sound, I found it necessary to work it out, out loud and as I say in the end, I have a better understanding of how I think and feel on this subject, for the present time.

But I feel a need to say these things not only to clarify my own thoughts, but because this is an important issue we all have to face and settle for our own selves. Everyone in the world is a creator and the more culture and technology enables anyone to share to larger groups of people, the more the question of craft versus art comes back at us.

Speaking of which, I'm currently reading a fascinating book, Here comes Everyone by Clay Shirky. It addresses the impact of social media on creativity and the changes it has had and will continue to have in the future. You should read it.

Finally, as I was putting together the links for this post I came across a comment ( from a reader of John Carrey's book who was disappointed that they didn't finish the book with clearer understanding of what art is. Diana commented that his definition of a work of art is 'anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art'. She goes on to say, "In other words anything, and correspondingly, nothing" A few more thoughtful reviews are found on the Times Online, Denis Dutton Online and The Reason Online.

This perspective, which is the cultural norm, that calling something art acts as a qualifier, sieve, gate and value judgment. Defining art is like separating the sheep from the goats. Not only does this approach lead to fruitless and unending debate, I think it's destructive and wrong.

I couldn't find a way to artfully add a couple links into the show notes, so I'll just list them here:

The Emoti-Chair

CBC Spark episode # 71 about the Emoti-Chair

Here's the transcript of the show, it may or may not help.

Let me know what you think.

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Hi, and welcome to the Video StudentGuy show, the weekly journal of a video student. I'm the guy, Paul Lyzun.

This is the second part to a show I posted a few weeks ago, Show #128, which was about Craft. In this show I'm gong to be talking a little bit more about art and some more about craft,

I began that show by talking about the path you might follow to make a film. I just wanted to sum it up in a tight little package, from my own narrow little perspective.

Along the way I got lost talking about craftsmanship. I don't apologize for wandering off the path, craftsmanship is the subject of my recent film. Craftsmanship is integral to filmmaking, and for myself, the duality of Craft and Art has been a lifelong tug of war.

I think I did a passing fair explanation of what I felt craft was, and by implication, what it's value is. I'll work hard not to go over the same ground in this episode. Let me just mention one more time how much I enjoyed the book, The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett, and if you are at all interested, as I am, in the meaning of art and craft, particularly what it means in your creative process, I strongly recommend you find a copy and read it a couple times.

The last two things I mentioned in episode #128 that leads into today's portion of the conversation are that art, or better and broader yet, creative expression, is a form of communication, and the other is the question and the book that bears the name, What is Art Good For, by John Carey.

Let me start with the idea that I got form the book, which is what good is art for? Let me start with the idea that was spawned by the book, which is, what is art good for?

The first thing I'm going to do is dispense with the word Art – it's a loaded word meaning everything and nothing. Just trying to narrow it's definition would take more time than it's worth.

I'm going to use "it" in exchange for Art and you can assume when I say "it", I'm saying Art.

I want to start off that way because it eliminates preconceived ideas of creativity. It eliminates pictures of what is not art and removes the risk of applying taste and prejudice (same thing? you decide) to the topic.

That frees me up for a few minutes to look at the question itself, which is really very telling.

To rephrase the question, "what is it good for" is a universal and a common, commonly asked question. It places the focus on the practical and pragmatic. Things exist because they perform a function. In a Darwinian sense, you could say things exist because they're food for something else, or are means of avoiding being food. Every detail in the construction and appearance of everything has a purpose. I believe that's true whether you believe in a higher power or the evolutionary process, or both. This isn't about who's responsible, this is about dealing with the way things are.

So, asking what is it good for implies there must be a purpose, that things exist for a reason. As I just describe, I concede they do exist for a reason.

Imagine that I made something. At a very minimalist level it is good for being the result of an effort of realizing an idea in the real world, the world outside our minds. We're thinking things all the time. Making stuff up that never was, and is not. But when someone takes an idea and makes it, physically, it becomes separate from the maker, beyond their control.

Now, why would anyone want to do that? Well, perhaps to get a more concrete grasp of this idea, Looking at it externally allows me to refine it's nature until it matches my expectations OR it changes the way I think.

Once I put an idea in the physical world, my mind isn't solely in control of it's idenity. The world that we both occupy now has some claim to it's meaning and in the process I can change as well as it can.

The thing I made changes me.

THAT, is the real power of creativity!

Being able to change yourself.

That makes it worth the effort alone, just to experience change in how I perceive the world I live in.

But it doesn't end with communicating with the world separate from myself. When I put it out there in a world of other individuals I open it and myself up to further change through the reactions of other people and how they view themselves and the world, the same world I live in objectively, but not subjectively.

It's a means of expressing a human experience and a means of sharing a human experience

Sounds complicated eh?

Well, getting back to the main question, what is it good for?

It's good for changing myself, changing other people – changing the world.

What is it again?

It is art, it is creativity, it is human expression, it is communication.

Everything changes all the time. Scale isn't the issue. We are bombarded, shot through every iota of a moment with information that changes our world view and I'm guessing here, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me we don't register most of it.

So the volume and the scale, it doesn't matter very much. Everything changes, all the time. You can't take it all in.

That's why we're all different right, we are the sum of what we choose to perceive.

Now, lets get a little more concrete. I want to talk about the book "What is Art Good For? by John Carey.

Because once we get past the abstract, fundamental view I've just presented, things get immediately sticky and oh so thick. Watch out that you don't loose a shoe in the mud.

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I have not read this book, I'll tell you right up front and as long as I'm being honest I'll say that in all likelihood I won't.

I think I would enjoy his writing and find I would agree with a lot of what he has to say. I just don't have the time or inclination. I'm not saying this a means of passing judgement on his book, it's just a matter of personal bandwidth.

By all accounts John Carey is a good writer and very convincing in his arguments. He is witty, intelligent and dead on in his ability to deconstruct and lay bare the self serving mystification of the art establishment. His books are a pleasure to read. One author thought he was just a little too forgiving in his appraisal of the one medium he feels is superior, but overall, he thinks that it's a good book.

I've read a number of reviews and I've put a couple links on the blog page if you'd like to read them as well. After several different articles read, I feel I can made some generalizations (obviously without having read the book) and offer this simple, perhaps unfair generalization.

He says that the art culture is pompous and hypocritical
and that greatest art is literature.

See the time I saved you!?

The primary reason I'm discussing it here is to present an alternative view to his perception that all other creative works are subordinate to literature. And since I haven't read his book I'm not going to indict him personally, he may very well feel misunderstood on that count, I just want to use his premise as a jumping off point for this idea of a hierarchy in value to art – that there's always a pecking order.

The more we embrace technology in our lives, the further we become removed from our origins, the places and things that have shaped us as human beings over our time here on earth. Despite the pervasiveness of the technology surrounding us today, it still doesn't have the same impact on the way we think act and feel as "natural" environmental shapers.

So, we've surrounded ourselves with an environment of our own making – which is alien to us in a historically cultural sense. Plastic, steel concrete – they register in our higher functioning brain, but not in our unconscious mind, which got us by for hundreds of thousands of years before we began collecting together to build farms, towns and cities.

The invention of writing and the ability to read has had a profound impact on our culture, both as a means of advancing it, and archiving it. Certainly our success in living in an artificial environment is due mainly in part to reading and writing. But whatever we've read, whatever has been written, is a memory that connects us to a real experience of something we've felt, touched, smelled, seen and heard at an earlier time. I believe these senses are more immediate and transfer information to our brains in a more visceral and direct way. And yet, the further we move into the future, the less exposure we have to these sense touchstones. It's sort of like living without knowing what the midnight sky looks like without light pollution.

How much are we really missing? How much are we really separated from the past, from the real world in terms of the artificial world that we've created for ourselves?

Well, if you're honest, you know you can't beat a tornado. The best you can do is hunker down with Auntie Em. And how different is that from hiding from a tiger in a cave.

Of course it can be rightly said that writing presents information in an organized manner. After all, how valuable can art be that slips by your conscious understanding and sits like undigested meat in your colon until it finally integrates into your body you're not even aware of the cause of any change that's taken place? Or that change has taken place.

Actually, I think change that occurs without knowing is an an awesome power.

So think about music, the texture of a basket or the smell of a leather coat. It's a message organized in a different way. Nonlinear, holistic.

And you could say that writing has achieved a greater cumulative scale in meaning than any other media, but I reject the importance of volume and scale, in favor of the specific impact a creative work can have on an individual.

Let me use a specific instance to clarify what I mean about this unique effect that non verbal art can have on different individuals.

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About communication through the other senses
Spark #71

I listened to a show called Spark . It's from CBC Radio in Canada. It's a great show. Each show has several stories of different length about current and bleeding edge technology and how it's transforming people's lives. I like it mainly because, although it's all about technology, it dares to find ways in which technology is changing the way we live – as we're living it. Right now! That, is cool.

One of the stories in a recent episode, episode number 71, was a conversation about the creation of an emoti-chair, a device which produces electrical impulses, tiny shocks, that are triggered by the sounds in music.

When you sit in this chair it actually – it can actually feel like something is touching you. The creators of this technology have developed a new form of expression based on the sense of touch.It has begun to morph quickly. One example is that deaf people can sense music in a greater dimension.

Someone who was deaf described how at a party everyone who couldn't hear would hear the music through feeling the vibrations, barefoot, through the wooden floors. The difference with the emoti-chair is that each instrument creates a different sensation. Instead of all of the music coming through as one vibration, you had different vibrations at different locations on the chair, which of course affected different parts of your body. For each instrument. This mechanism allowed a deaf person the ability to experience music through assimilating multiple layers of sensation, in this case tactile, which mirrored closely the manner in which a hearing person experienced music through their ears.

Another person, one without hearing limitations found that the emotional impact of the music was intensified with the combination of the sensations that were generated by the emoti-chair. It literally brought her to tears in a way the music did not.

Finally, a musician who was composing music for the chair found that he was able to elevate the effect that the chair on the senses, not by writing a great song, but writing the music based on the sensations produced by sitting in the chair.

So the chair itself was his feedback loop, not his ears.

Is this any less the impact that literature has? Is the argument that literature is more powerful as a single force and to the greatest number of people because of it's ability to cross reference itself and establish a more cohesive, inter-referential whole? Is it because it's easier to document and catalog it's impact that sets it apart in value from all other forms? Is it the consistency of the media over generations that makes it easier to judge?

Okay, this is where you're saying, well Paul, you should just read the book and find out. Find out why he thinks that way!

Well, my point at it's very heart is that any creative expression has to be judged on it's own and by an individual.

So, the first point is that there's all this bogus mysticism about art, and it's being propped up by museums, and art collectors, and art speculators and so forth. That has, for generations and hundreds of years even, affected the way we perceive art. Remember, there was a time when art and craft were one thing. They were just simply creative expressions. At least in western culture, it wasn't until the Renaissance that they sort of split apart. And so there was a humbler form of creativity, and a higher form of creativity.

But, that was just simply a societal choice. Up to that point people didn't make that distinction and there was no need to make that distinction. And I believe very much that that was generated by money.

If people valued it and therefore they had to identify that it had a special, unique value, that set it apart. Supply and demand so to speak.

So however powerful any work of art can be, I just don't believe that there is a greatest hits of art. There is great art, there is universal art, but I think it's important to value work based on a personal level.

Just as one's knowledge and understanding of math and science is easier to measure compared to the arts in general, like in SAT scores, so society believes that's the better organized the information is, the better it represents a higher intelligence.

After all, isn't that how we were able to create a sophisticated culture? And I'm not saying that we can throw that away, but I think that it would be good to embraced that disorganized, holistic, intuitive aspect of ourselves just as much. This is what we're starving [for], currently, in our culture

So the idea of having the ability to quantify and categorize and hierarchize and organize art - that makes it much easier sort-of-like to build a mountain of blocks and then see which comes upon top.
Is that the reason literature achieves greater significance over the other arts?

I'm not going to enter into that argument. I can only say that measuring the value of something through the volume of it's impact is dehumanizing. Creativity is expressed on a personal level and impressed on individuals in the same way. Hundreds of people can view a painting at a museum in a single day. Thousands of people can hear a musical performance at one time in a concert. Millions of people can watch a movie on TV simultaneously. But every person internalizes that experience on a personal level.

Painting, music, literature, origami, everything touches everyone of us in a different way at different times and while you generalize about the critical defining characteristics of one medium, you also lose a lot in the streamlining process. And in that process you disenfranchise a lot of people from a lot of creativity.

It's not just about what you see and identify as art, it's what you allow yourself to believe what you can do, as far as art. And if you think that knitting is secondary to some other art form, then you're always going to feel like a second class citizen of art. Of creativity, forget the art word.

[Streamlining, simplifying art is a form of marketing. For money, for ideology, take your pick. The honest reaction of an individual to a single creative expression cannot be calculated, summed and expressed in anything more than a gross generalization that distorts its value.]

But I'm not interested in changing the world on this point. For myself, I feel that holding this thought, this consideration, as I create, will help me keep my balance against any outside pressure of generalized, common knowledge, wisdom and understanding.

Well, now that that's over I don't think I enjoyed it very much at all. How about you? It was hard work and I don't think it makes any difference.

Well, maybe a little difference. Now that I've written this down and thought about it, I have a better idea of what I think I think, and I can consider whether it makes sense or not. I don't know about you.

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After I wrote all this that I just told you, I had some other thoughts and I decided that, instead of integrating them, I'd just simply leave them as a footnote at the end .

I think the reason I'm going on and on about the idea of craft and art is this (and remember when I say art, I mean an expression of creativity and a desire to communicate):

Art with a capital A, as I've tried to identify earlier, creates a sense of heightened expectations. Somedays you don't feel inspired, you're glad you can drag your sad butt out of bed and put your shoes on the right feet.

Days like that can make you wonder if you should even put in the time. Everyone has days like that and you can't control when they happen. Frankly, I don't want to live with the weight of expectations about what I'm going to do or how well I'm going to do it, while I'm in the middle of my work. I don't want to be distracted, I want the creativity to flow out of me without any speedbumps.

That's the feeling I want, regardless of how useful, attractive or successful is the thing I end up creating. When I'm in that frame of mind, what I make is almost always good and whether it's what I want or not, it leaves me feeling good about the work and myself. And that just perpetuates more creativity.

[So I think all the talk about art is an after the fact thing. It's hindsight. Who knows how many trials, experiments or dead ends any creative person has to pass through before the finished work of art is delivered. No one wants to know, no one cares. So why do people who are making the thing itself have to think about it.]

I know, there's all kind of situations where you have to keep your eye on the deadline, measure the work you're doing against the anticipated product, keeping customers happy, keeping the business flowing.

I'm not saying you can dispense with all those voices, I only want to provide a little breathing room so we can create and build, At the same time I'm also listening to myself think, I can watch myself work, think about what I'm doing and have enough presence of mind to evaluate it, or re-evaluate it and then proceed forward to the next step.

When the focus is on craft you can have that kind of internal conversation, just you and the thing you're creating. And you can feel good about what you're doing, because you can see how you're doing.

Immediate feedback loop.


There's something about big people and little people when it comes to creative endeavors and I don't like the mentality that we qualify the creative value of something based on it's ROI. Yeah, we got a great economic steamroller of a system, but when I make things, I'm answering a need that places money below first place.

I'm not saying that we can live in a world where doesn't money matter, only that we should choose to live in a world where it matters a lot less than it does.


If you're still listening, I applaud your fortitude. Thanks for letting me talk this thing out. I think next week I'll do a short show about something superficial.

I've got links on the blog to the various podcasts, or books that I've talked about. Take a look at You can also leave a comment or a criticism at the website. Or you can send me an email at

Despite how I may come off, I am interested in what you think, even if we disagree. In fact, I reserve the right to disagree with myself sometime in the future.

I'm Paul, the videostudentguy, thanks for listening,

I'll talk to you later,

in the meantime, be creative.

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