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Why create works of art?

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This essay is part of a continuing meditation on the meaning of the arts.

For my own part, many motivations join forces to move me to create.

In one sense, it seems an absolutely essential aspect of my identity as a human being. Making art is a continuation of the playful explorations of childhood by which we learn about our world, and ourselves, and our capabilities.

Such play is a process employed in building our maps of cognitive reality, in exercising and building intelligence through practical application of what our senses reveal in conjunction with what our social training requires.

Humans are wired to create works of art (visual, musical, visceral, muscular, gustatory, literary, and more) the way birds are wired to build nests. Some might argue that nests serve a more practical, observably useful purpose than do works of art.

That would depend on how much we value cognitive maps making sense of our complex world and how we value the kind of thinking that builds bridges between individuals and society, between the worlds of the senses and of objective rationality, the kind of thinking good at finding creative solutions to the plethora of problems we encounter while living in the material world.

So, one reason for making art is that I like to explore my sensory experiences in a playful way. Different artists, obviously, produce different work. Different media, different tools and materials, different circumstances can all lead the explorations of a single artist into new and different paths.

Put pen and ink in my hands and I’ll explore fine dark lines in relation to a blank page. I may explore them abstractly, looking for patterns inspired by the movement of my hands to music or in relation to a grid, or by combining variations on the theme of a single curve. Or I may explore in relation to what I see in the world around me, reproducing the curves of a face or a tree, a landscape or cityscape. Or I may explore what my imagination or dreams inspire: drawing a unicorn, mermaid or gryphon – as informed by reality, but not confined by it. My explorations may lead me to combine any number of these differing approaches.

Put crayons in my hands and I’ll explore the potential of bright colors and thick lines and the texture of the paper in conjunction with the waxy material. A light hand shows the texture of rough paper. A heavy hand emphasizes color over texture. Crayon resists watercolor, which will flow into the gaps the wax fails to cover… Again, I can explore abstractly, representationally, expressively, surreally or in any combination – but the results will look very different from those produced with other materials.

Similarly, explorations in three-dimensional media, or in computer-generated images will produce very different results according to the potential of their types.

Exploring across multiple media teaches me to look for and recognize the potential in a range of differing creative environments. Take away my pen, my pencils, my crayons, whatever tools I’ve been using – and I will still know how to approach turning whatever materials are at hand to creative ends.

In another sense, creative work is about power. The world is vast and complex and almost entirely beyond my power to affect. Almost. All but this one spot at the point of my pencil or pen or brush. All but this word, and the next one, and the next. I have the power to change just so much, and to share what I have done with – at least some of – the people around me and make it a part of their experience as well as mine. In turn, I can see and hear and feel the changes they make. Together we create a culture of shared experiences. We create civilization by sharing our creative experiences and our understandings in this way.

In that sense, creative work is about relationships. Art builds bridges between individuals and society. No two individuals see the world from the same position at the same time. If you want someone else to see things your way, you need to reproduce what you see in a form you can share. This has gotten a lot easier since the invention of photography, and even the best photograph loses something in translation.

The potential for seeing the world through the eyes of others – that’s huge. Like hearing the music born of another heart and recognizing one’s own passions there. We lead different lives, separate lives – as becomes only too clear in times of pain or suffering. However much we sympathize, we do not feel the same pain as the individual who has been injured or suffered a loss. You don’t feel my aching toes, courting frostbite as I walk home through sub-zero weather from a bus stop. I don’t feel your stubbed toe or mashed finger or your craving for that next cig or drink or whatever it is you may be craving.

But an evocative description or representation can remind me of my own pains and needs and I can understand that what you have experienced is similar enough to warrant my sympathy. The arts give us tools for recognizing the validity in one another’s individual experiences; they create a bridge between subjective experiences and objectively verifiable reality.

Art also builds bridges between the internal worlds of the senses and a more objective rationality. The left hand may not know what the right hand is doing. I may not know how to put what I’m feeling into terms that anyone else could understand, but an abstract expressionist painting could get the idea across, not only to others who might see it, but to my own distracted, abstracted conscious ego.

Different artistic approaches reach different audiences. No one work will reach everyone. The deaf will not appreciate your music. The blind will not appreciate any of my visual works or approaches. No one will relate to every possible work from every possible artist. Our choices, our differences in these ways help to define us as individuals and to define cultures and sub-cultures and fan groups and marketing niches. It’s all very frustrating and wonderful and confusing and amazing.

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