In college, I used to envy students who could draw realistically, who could render apples to look like photographs.
After all, when I was a child, art was all about making things look real. Even in my college art classes, my inability to create the illusion of reality hurt me. I put in extra studio time in pursuit of artistic realism. I even sat in on drawing classes that were held in different periods in order to practice.
But no matter how much time and practice I put in, I could never seem to make higher than a B +. I went to my professor and expressed my frustration. He told me that, though my craftsmanship left much to be desired, my concepts were excellent. “The craft of art is very important,” he said, “but concepts are arguably more important. Thousands of art students can draw a realistic tree. But art is more than realism. Any camera can achieve that. Art is about purpose.”
At the time I was not consoled. I thought he was just trying to make me feel better. If he valued concepts so much, why was he not giving me an ‘A’? But many years later, I better understand what he meant. Last week I was digging through my closet and found an abstract self-portrait I did decades ago.
There is nothing realistic about it, and at the time I drew it, I did not think much of it. But it has meaning to me. It expressed an emotional state. Although it had no title, it could easily have been called, “I am an introvert.” Though not technically perfect, I like the drawing.
Although I have not drawn anything else in a long time, I continue to use my favorite medium: words. As with art, for many years my main objective in writing was to create the illusion of reality; that is, to “sound professional.” Writing was about creating authentic dialogue and making characters move and interact in ways that conformed to reality. All of that was, and still is, useful.
But writing can do more than that, and it is only recently that I have discovered how to apply those technical skills to purposes beyond realism, commonly referred to as “themes.” While not all “good” writing has or needs strong themes, in my recent weekend project to write a story a week, my themes became my artistic purpose.
I used to think themes were mysterious, when in fact they come about naturally when you write about things you care deeply about. Obsessions, fears, dreams, problems I have or have not resolved, and memories that haunt me all found their way into my stories. That is because writing is how I deal with life; it is a way to organize the echoes of my past and my anticipation of the future into narrative “songs.”
Since I am human, many of my personal concerns are universal. What happens after you die? How do you find meaning in a life that is so fleeting? How do you emerge from accepting who the world says you are to discovering who you really are? How do you rise above the mundane and awaken to what life really is? Those questions are not mine alone. They are shared by others.
When I realized that my stories could do more than entertain, I became excited and I remembered what my art teacher had said. Art is about purpose. Concepts matter.
How I wish I could accomplish the same in visual art. I have ideas for comics all the time, but I lack the skill to execute them. But I believe my self-portrait was successful because, when I look at it, I still see myself in it. If I were to do a self-portrait now, it would not be exactly the same; I have changed since I drew it. But that is okay. I captured the mental and emotional state of the moment. It was art that achieved a purpose beyond imitating the physical world.
And writing, at its best, does the same.