Art is hard, and what's even harder is maintaining the conviction that art matters. That it's good for anything, that is changes anything, that it ameliorates anything. That we all (artists, I mean) wouldn't be better off filling out forms in the depths of some form-filling establishment, worrying about the ductwork. The world is hard.
And there's a good big chunk of the world that doesn't want art. That doesn't want ambiguity, nuance, contradiction, grayscale. That only wants linearity, clarity, definition.
And the funny thing is--the thing that I think sometimes critics miss--is that that clarity--that accessibility--is a literary value. It is an aspect of art.
But it is an aspect of art that is in tension (I will not say opposition) with other literary values--ambiguity and nuance, I mean. Because the more accessible, the more transparent a work of art becomes, the more the artist limits nuance. The more the artist limits interpretation. The more the artist limits epiphany.
And more: art is about projection. Anybody who even dips into the history of Shakespeare scholarship can see this clearly. The Bard's work becomes invisible under the layers and layers of projections larded onto it. One of the great tragic truisms of criticism is that we can't see shit about the average work of art--we can only see what we bring to it. Art is a series of funhouse mirrors, and it reflects back the concerns of both the artist and the audience through twisted lenses that really, nobody can control.
And yet as artists we have the responsibility to control them. To try to use those lenses to reflect some kind of truth; to coat it in sugar or venom so it goes down without being rejected.
And those things--the accessibility, the clarity, the nuance, the ambiguity--they are not always on one clear axis. And yet, still, the more clarity you introduce, the more you tend to limit nuance, interpretation. This is the problem with didactic art--when you say up front, "This is a story supporting thus-and-such a proposition," you limit yourself to preaching to the choir.
Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with preaching to the choir. It's the Huckleberry Finn problem
To wit: Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe were next door neighbors. (Did you know that? Both of their houses are still standing, and both are open to the public. They lived in Hartford.) Stowe's best-known book is Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is an abolitionist parable, a didactic and fantastical narrative about the evils of slavery. It was credited by Abraham Lincoln with being the genesis of the Civil War. And yet, in these modern times, it's somewhat reviled for its portrayal of African-Americans.
And hardly anybody reads it anymore.
Meanwhile, across the lilac hedge, Mr. Twain is hard at work on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A book which also loosely concerns itself with the evils of slavery. And which I was taught in 11th-grade English, as probably many of you Americans reading it were as well, entained with many dislaimers due to its use of "coarse humor" and the n-word.
My point, if I have one, is that artists have but little control over how we are read, and how posterity remembers us. And that we are probably all just pissing to windward.
And that it doesn't matter. As long as we remember that one human death is a tragedy, and six billion is a plot element. Because we are speaking to the neural systems of east African plains apes, and we're just not wired to understand or identify with the population of an entire planet the way we're wired to empathize with one.
Seriously, what's more horrifying? The death of all those untold billions on Aldebaran? Or Han being lowered into the Carbonite* tank?
Yes. Some people want to be spoon fed. And there are stories for those people.
But by choosing to limit ourselves in that manner, we also deny the audience the possibility of epiphany.
Oh well. Easy come, easy go.
And what the hell is art good for anyway?
No. I'm not doing anything useful with my life. But then, who is?
*not Corbomite, though the fanfic opportunities are endless.