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The Art of Lifelines

theroux quote - the art of lifelines

Everyone knows them: a friend or family member who cannot stop talking about this singer or that painting or whichever books. They sing praise and gush over its details to no end, while you gaze at them in bewilderment and wonder which of their screws came loose.

That, my friends, is the effect of art.

“But my sister is a Justin Bieber fan. That’s not art!”

Well, that depends on how you define ‘art’.

By Definition

Before anything else, art is subjective. Countless discussions notwithstanding, it’s simply not possible to give a viable objective definition of concept. Even the definition of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary leaves rooms for interpretation:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Yet many will concur that the likes of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon or David Bowie are great artists, and not just because they are (long) dead. We enjoy watching our favourite actors perform on screen or on stage, or reading a book by our favourite author. These may not be tangible visual forms of art, as the Oxford Dictionary suggests, but they are art all the same.

So the heart of the matter must lie in the “beauty and emotional power”. A subjective matter if ever there was one!

Or is it?

On a summer night in a London street, someone showed me the common denominator that defines art. Empiric as I am, I put that factor to the test. With remarkable results.

Art In Entertainment

I love Star Trek. I’m not a hard-core Trekkie, but as a teenager, I devoured the reruns of the original 1960s series. This may or may not have had something to do with raging hormones and young William Shatner in Captain Kirk’s tight shirt, but that is beside the point. The point is this:

Recently I watched William Shatner’s documentary Captains when it popped up on Netflix. In it, he interviews the actors who played the captains that came after Kirk and asks how they experienced being part of this immense world. Out of genuine interest on his part, because back when he portrayed Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek was ‘just’ a silly sci-fi series for what we would now call a ‘young adult’ audience.

Why would fans still cheer for him when he appears at conventions, 50 years after the series first aired?

Shatner found the answer not in the interviews with his fellow captains, but by talking to the people he came across during his travels to conduct the interviews. So many expressed their love for Star Trek and why the show appealed to them so much. For some it was the outlandish technology that inspired a career in engineering. For others the stories and the imagination gave much-needed relief from the daily sorrows of living with a severe handicap. But for all of them it came down to this: watching the adventures of Kirk and his crew had changed their lives.

To the fans Star Trek isn’t ‘just a silly sci-fi show’, but a thing of beauty and emotional power. In short, a form of art.

Gatekeepers Are Pointless

“How can a science fiction TV show ever be art?” Well, by being a thing of beauty. And beauty, as I´m sure you know, is in the eye of the beholder.

Every person is one of a kind. We all have our own background, dispositions and experiences that made us who we are at this moment. The mix of all the factors that have influenced our lives to date is unique for every person on the planet. Hence we are all unique.

That means that we all have a different concept of what we like or don’t like. What one considers to be ugly may be appealing to another. What one considers trite and boring may very well be a revelation to someone else.

So who is to say what is or isn’t art?

Look at my own experiences, I have found as many answers to life issues in cartoons like Transformers and Lego Ninjago as I did in Victor Hugo’s literary work Les Misérables. My life would have been noticeably different – I would have been different – if not for the insights that each of those creations provided. But that is no guarantee that anyone else struggling with the same issues will find the same answers by binge-watching hundreds of cartoon episodes or ploughing through nearly 1500 pages of nineteenth century prose.

The other way around is true, too. I have never understood all the fuss about Tolkien. I can’t get past page 70 of The Lord of The Rings, and not for lack of trying. The story, the style, the premise, the characters simply do not appeal to me. But while they have nothing to tell me, I do know several people in my direct environment for whom those books changed their outlook on life.

Who am I to claim that just because a work isn’t my cup of tea, it cannot be art? Who is anyone else make such a claim? Art should not be about gatekeepers. It is about lifelines.

Art should not be about gatekeepers. It is about lifelines.

“Throw Out A Lifeline”

In that London street two summers ago, I had the immense honour to meet the Australian actor Philip Quast after a play that he had performed in that night. I have adored his acting for years, but I hadn’t waited outside that venue for an autograph or photo. All I hoped for was an opportunity to tell him in person how profoundly his work had affected me.

During a brief chat, he asked me if I wrote at all, which I of course confirmed. He then not only signed my playbill, but also scribbled a title in a corner: “Throw Out A Lifeline”. There are many reason I still can’t thank him enough for that short meeting. This is one of them.

By sharing her pain through her work, she threw out a lifeline to those in her audience who had similar experiences.

The article’s author is Marsha Norman, an Australian playwright. It is a transcript from a speech in which she tells about how her audience responded to her work, and how she discovered that what she put into her work touched their lives without realising it. By sharing her pain through her work, she threw out a lifeline to those in who audience who had similar experiences. For these people, her work had a strong emotional power.

To them, her plays were more than a night out, more than entertainment. It was art.

A Web Of Lifelines

For many artists, creating their work (often fiction) is a way to create the second chance that life denies them, as Paul Theroux put it in the quote at the top. Often they try to save a loved one who in life is already beyond salvation. Making art is their way of coping with the world. They throw a lifeline.

For the audience, the artists’ public coping mechanisms help them cope with their own life in turn. They catch the lifeline.

But more than that, when the audience shows the artist their appreciation, they throw back a lifeline of their own – one for the artist to cling to. It is the dynamics between the artist and the audience during music concerts. It is readers leaving a book review. It is fan letters and people waiting in the cold outside a venue, just to say ‘thank you’.

The connection between artist and audience creates
a web of lifelines that benefit both.

Regardless of what kind of work triggered it or who made it, such webs of lifelines share a rare and wonderful feeling with everyone in them: to be recognised and appreciated. And ultimately, recognition and appreciation is what everyone hopes for in life.

Which is why any work that inspires even a handful of people to enjoy those feelings is a work of art.

(P.S. If you want to know just why I admire Philip Quast so much, just watch this video.)