In an article on teaching entitled "Making Interdisciplinary Connections," Samuel Hope says that the unique perspective of the discipline of art is "to make new things, or to make things new." When I first read the article in 1999, I was quite taken with this definition of art, and immediately set out to apply it to all the projects I assigned my students. I found it a useful tool for making sure that the projects really got the kids to create art, and not just churn out something without the need to use any creativity or to think in "the unique perspective of the discipline of art." But now that I'm not in the classroom any more, I've begun to think about this definition of art again, this time in terms of how it applies to the block prints I'm doing now. It seems to me that the definition can also apply more broadly to all sorts of arts, including writing fiction.
As mentioned in the last post, you can get bogged down if you worry too much about what's "new," but that's where Hope's phrase is so nice. Think about Monet's water lilies. Painting a pretty garden with flowers was hardly new, yet he looked at the scene in a new way, and his paintings make the very light new to those who see them. Think about the example of Harry Potter. There's nothing new about an orphan boy with mean caretakers, who discovers a wonderful world of magic. Yet J.K. Rowling put together these classic ingredients with some truly new ideas of her own, and produced a series that made a whole new world for millions of people. Perhaps an even more interesting example is the movie "The Fifth Element." In some ways the movie came up with nothing original at all… and yet the elements were mixed up together in such a fun way, with such a new, slick, funky look, that I found that the movie "made things new" for me, even if it didn't make anything new.
So, as I try to critique my own work, I wonder if I've managed to make anything new. Inevitably I feel that some of my pieces are more successful than others, but for some I know that I've made things new for myself, even if for no one else. After all, that's what makes creation fun. That's why I keep coming back for more. Goodness knows there's nothing new about depicting a rooster. And yet as I made this block I tried my hand at a variety of different patterns and design elements that were new and exciting to me, and the response from viewers seems to confirm that my rooster brings a new vision to at least some others, too.
On the writing front, my Otherworld Series is set in a fairly traditional fantasy world. It's medieval-ish, with elves, dwarves, and humans, dragons and mages, evil to be conquered by brave young heroes… all the usual stuff. So how is it anything new? What I wanted to explore was what might happen if people who lived in such a world - a world that we all think we know all about - tried to approach their world in a less traditional way, a new way, without the swords and sorcery or the knights in armor that are usually shown conquering evil. In other words, I was trying to show an old, familiar world in a new, unfamiliar way that might make readers rethink what they take for granted.
In any case, the idea of making new things and making things new seems to me to capture the essence of what art does - what we recognize as creativity. This is what we're responding to when we see a piece of art or read a book and feel as if windows are opening within us and new light is flooding in.
[Picture: Chanticleer, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.]