What’s the job of art?

It’s hard to define art: be it music, literature, visual arts, drama, etc. I would prefer to say that life would be impossible for most people without it. Call it escapism, if you wish.  Life can be very dry and purposeless without the varnish of art. It can be very lonely. Even meaningless. As Tennessee Williams once said:

“What implements have we but words, images, colors, scratches upon the caves of our solitude?”

Art is any expression of human emotion and feeling. It’s the telling of a story. We are all artists one way or another. This does not mean our work will be recognized in our lifetime or sold for millions of dollars in galleries, but what counts is what it does for you. The officially recognized great works of art follow criteria that varies according to time and audience. Their market value rises and lowers  at different times. So, we, as simple viewers or artists, should not care about what is considered by the experts GREAT ART. Give yourself the right to make or evaluate art,  based on your own guidelines. More than that, every piece of art which can transport you to a world that makes you happier, or feel more intensely, or evoke cherished memories, or give you hope and peace should count as great. It can be your creation or someone else’s.

I never forget the moment I first saw painter Peter Paul Rubens’  Samson and Delilah (picture below), while roaming the halls of the National Gallery in London. I did not know that painting. It beckoned at me from a distance and made me walk, transfixed, in its direction, wide-eyed and excited. Sensual, colorful, showing  unusual uses of a number of light sources to illuminate the scene,  and telling a story: that is all I wanted from a painting. I may have spent the next 20 min standing in front of the huge painting staring at it, looking like an idiot, with a silly smile glued to my face. Then I went back there two more times in the course of a 10-day vacation in London to experience the power of that painting again – it’s a good thing the National Gallery has free admission!

Samson and Delilhah, 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery, London.

Samson and Delilhah, 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery, London.

I found a copy of the painting on the Internet and excitedly emailed it to some of my close friends telling them how I had felt looking at it. That’s another thing about great experiences, it’s hard to enjoy them alone, you need to share. This post is obviously part of this need.

As for literature, another great type of  humanity’s artistic achievement, how many times have I drowned my sorrows by reading a novel by Philip Roth (one of my favorite writers, as many of you readers of this blog already know): the misery and problems of his characters far outweigh mine and serve as solace by giving me a deeper understanding of human beings. Roth is brutal and I doubt he intends to offer any comfort to the reader through his stories – but he does, regardless of what his original aim might be.

Author Philip Roth

Author Philip Roth

At the end of 2014, having some free time, I had the idea of combining two of my greatest passions – the English language and visual arts –  in a project: the series of ebooks of the series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART (for further info check out this post http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS ). I figured I could not be alone in enjoying studying a foreign language in the context of powerful images that would take me beyond the walls of the dreary language classroom and make me dream. I was right: after self-publishing eight ebooks and with a ninth coming out soon, I noticed that many other people all over the world shared my passions.

When I was a language/literature student in college, we had a very dry and uninteresting subject: Portuguese literature. I appreciate some may love it – art is individual and personal. But I must admit I loathed the company of Camoes and his  jingoism, despite the excellence of the teacher and her love for the subject. One day, however, she surprised us with a different approach to the teaching of the boring Portuguese literature of the Baroque era: she brought a projector to the classroom and contextualized  some of the visual art movements – which are inevitably reflected in the literature of the time – by showing works of famous artists. That was my first contact with Velázquez and his “borrachos”, partying with Bacchus. The teacher’s explanation of the painting and the artist was vibrant. The class was in awe. We were always in a hurry to leave the session and enjoy our cheap beer on Friday evenings (those were evening classes). That day, however, most people couldn’t care to leave when the class came to its official end, and let the teacher carry on for as long as she wanted. We had started to refine our taste: it was better to see Bacchus inebriate his minions than go out to Olinda and get drunk ourselves.

The Triumph of Bacchus, Velázquez, 1628, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Triumph of Bacchus, Velázquez, 1628, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Au revoir,

Jorge Sette

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