Or, The Artist As a Distiller of Life
Another post inspired by a discussion in my comments.
The idea of using someone else’s art as a jumping off point for your own raises an interesting question: why on earth would the lyrics of a song, or a painting on the wall, be more inspiring than the vast and variegated expanse of the world around you?
The answer I came up with, before I even realized this was a question worth asking, is that art in any form is a distillation of life into one fascinating strand. Illustratively: the world as we see it is at left, and the world as an artist presents it is at right:
Sometimes it seems there is simply too much to see and admire, so much that we cannot settle on one point to really focus on and delve deeply into. It’s like the very vastness of the world gives us cosmic ADD so that we cannot stop looking from point to point to point, trying to settle on one thing that stands out beyond the rest to stop at, and just experience. What an artist does is to narrow the world down for us–they pick out a strand to highlight and force us to contemplate that strand alone. The close focus creates a profundity, even if it is an optical illusion; that idea, that moment, that strand may or may not be any more profound or important or beautiful than all the others, but because it is the one we are shown, we can contemplate it more deeply than any of the strands we see presented all at once and as equals.
A piece of art as inspiration almost functions as a subconscious prompt. When you are told to “tell a story”–be it via painting, or dance, or a song, or a novel, or costume, or whatever–the possibilities are literally limitless. This feeling is overwhelming. When you have so much to choose from, how do you choose at all? (This is also the heart of the consumer paradox, that too few choices are bad but so are too many, because the decision becomes paralyzing when there are too many options to consider.) But every time you are given a prompt, a direction, a constraint, then the world is narrowed down. If you add enough constraints you are left with a quite manageable theme.
For example, in a progression of refinements for a romance novelist, “Tell a story” becomes “Tell a story about two lovers,” and from there it can be qualified to a very inspiring sort of constraint like “Tell a story about two lovers with a volatile passion” or “Tell a story about two lovers who are reunited.” Either of those refinements is much easier to write from than either of the previous versions, because the constraints lop off enough other possibilites to free the imagination to run in one direction and actually get somewhere instead of whirling like a top in every direction and end up staying in one place, spinning.
That, I think, is the point of art: to create a view of the world that shows one place, one moment, one emotion, one event, and allows everyone who experiences that art to view the world in more depth via that constraint, that sort of microscopic view, than is possible with our usual macroscopic view. There is a reason that microscopes and telescopes don’t magnify a large swath but only a tiny one, and it is because the human mind can only hold so much in the forefront of its consciousness at once. When we can focus, we can engage and experience and contemplate and discover and enjoy and be moved to tears.
That is the point of art, to provide a focus on something worth looking at.
Which makes artists distillers of life. And just like spirits, life can be distilled into many flavors and many strengths, suited to an endless variety of occasions. Not every distillation needs to be the bitter and brooding bite of a suicidal night found in absinthe; some should be the bright and warm sun of the tropics found in coconut rum. The point is that as an artist, you are taking your experience of the world and refining it into a pure, potent form that contains in one sip the essence of the moment you wanted to capture.