Kerby: Art for the ages

Steve Kerby, Staff Reporter

Recently, I’ve been preoccupied with the subject of art. Most people, whether they know it or not, create art in some form, and even though it’s unrelated to my professional goals, I’m neck-deep in creation. I write, practice karate, try to create theater and strum the string bass.

In the midst of all this, I wonder why we make art. I have started to settle into a philosophy about art, and I want to share it with you. It informs what sort of art I aim to create, and I hope that it will help you put a little bit more art in your life.

All art, I think, has three motivations to varying degrees. These reasons are “Art for the Artist,” “Art for the Audience” and “Art for the Art.” I want to dissect each reason with examples from my artistic experience, informal and amateur as it is.

What is “Art for the Artist?” This is art created for the satisfaction of its creators. My martial arts practice is this type of art alone. I practice karate so I can improve myself and stay fit, while the other reasons are secondary. Those small poems you wrote in your middle school journal or the sketches doodled in the pages of an optics notebook are also “Art for the Artist.” Not all self-centered art is so informal, though. A student group can produce theater with the sole aim of scratching that addictive theatrical itch, not losing too much sleep over the quality or appeal of the art itself. “Art for the Artist” aims to enrich inner creative or emotional strength.

What is “Art for the Audience?” This is art aimed toward affecting a change in those who consume it. This newspaper is for the audience; its components written and compiled for the benefit of the community. Improvised comedy is almost entirely for the audience’s cheap laughs, having no premeditated meaning beyond entertainment. I do not suggest that audience-centered art is somehow betraying highbrow culture. Even blockbuster movies that rake in millions but are quickly forgotten are still meaningful art. Consider “Avatar,” James Cameron’s 3D epic: the highest-grossing movie of all time is now a footnote in cultural history, but it sure left an impact. “Art for the Audience” aims to change or redirect the lives of everyone who experiences it even if only for a few hours.

What is “Art for the Art?” This art is designed to push the boundaries of its method, showing the world something new and brave. Many experimental forms of theater and music are this type of art. A few years back I went to a show in a small bar in Chicago that was hours of entirely improvised instrumental music. That pushed the boundaries of musical performance, and I respect it for that, even if I was bored out of my mind. In the past two years, I’ve spearheaded the completion of a science fiction musical, mainly to push the boundaries of musical theater into new genres of story and sound. “Art for the Art” tries to discover new ways of expressing human creativity, never mind judgement or cost.

Art can still fall short of all of these aspirations. When artistic endeavors become social outings, or just satisfy the desire for recognition, achievement or approval, they lose drive. I’ve seen this happen, on personal and organizational levels. I’ve known talented musicians who react angrily when they didn’t receive what they thought was their due. I’ve known several theatrical endeavors that have weakened over time because creating art became mechanical. They became theater out of habit, not passion.

The death gasps of “American Idol” are likewise stuck in these swamps of mediocrity. The art continued to flow, but is unfulfilling to the community, to art as a quest and to any artists with higher aspirations than routine production.

Each of the three reasons for doing art also illuminates a route towards failure if attention is not paid to each element. Art that has no regard for the audience’s experience or enjoyment falls quickly into neglect. Art that forgoes the needs and humanity of the individual artist grinds up participants, driving them away and throttling expressive ability. Art that strives to push no boundaries fades quickly into obscurity, lasting no longer than the end of the show.

Artists inherit traditions that stretch back millennia, and the survival of an art form to the next generation is not guaranteed. Individual pieces of art contribute to this longevity successfully when all three of the motivations for art are present. Only then is the lineage of the art form continued. “Art for the Audience” keeps the general public interested in the art form. “Art for the Artist” ensures a thriving community that continues to contribute creativity and energy to new pieces. “Art for the Art” broadens artistic horizons and creates unexplored territories which future generations explore.

I want to partake in art motivated by all three, and I hope you do too. Every piece of art I create should be satisfying to me, experiential for an audience and passionate and brave in the heritage that instructs it. Even if your art is random doodles, show it to friends. Your silly limericks have a place on some blog, somewhere. Maybe there’s a new type of sculpture waiting in your head just waiting to be formed into reality.

I hope you can find it in yourself to pursue art for yourself, for others and in the name of art itself.

Steve Kerby is a fourth-year student, almost ready to go study astronomy in graduate school. He knows you’ve got beautiful art waiting to leap into the world.