Why art (and love) are not transactional

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Article by Jayden Jones, Opinion Editor

Recently, my professor assigned my class an essay called “The Question Robin Hemley Hates,” in which the author (Robin Hemley) laments that so many of his readers inquire as to whether he found a sense of healing after writing his memoir. He ponders whether the metric for “good” literature is whether or not it has the capacity to heal the author or audience. 

As we discussed this question, my professor brought up the problematic idea of art being transactional. The idea that for a piece of art to be effective, we must have a profound, personal reaction to it; it must do for us some good, provide for us some service. The danger of this idea is that if a piece of art possesses no specific connection to our personal lives and experiences, we dismiss it. 

As liberal arts students, we are exposed to seemingly irrelevant art on a daily basis. Our professors listen to us complain that our prejudice against poetry is because it produces no physical reaction inside of us; we read it and feel nothing. However, I would argue that measuring the worthiness of art based on only emotion prevents us from fully enjoying and appreciating art, and also others. 

Over winter break, I visited the Denver Art Museum. Walking through all four levels of deeply complex and politically powerful artwork, I can honestly say that only about five paintings struck my heart. The rest, I simply passed as though I was passing buildings on a street. This doesn’t mean that the paintings I passed are less meritorious than those that stirred an emotional reaction. 

This is in part because I had no prior knowledge of the technique, medium, period, and other aspects of the paintings that lend valuable insight into the work. I was unaware of the background of the artist, their place of origin or personal struggles. If I’d studied this information, I might have a very different experience. 

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This is why the opportunities to study art in-depth are incredibly valuable. For years, I wrote off Emily Dickinson (an egregious crime, I know) because I didn’t connect with her poetry. However, after studying it rigorously, I learned how intentional her poetry was. Every syllable had meaning. Now I have incredible respect for her craft. 

How can taking a closer look at the creation story of the piece of art in front of us affect our relationship with others? In my eyes, people are not that different from works of art. Each person is intentionally and beautifully made, with a backstory that, while it isn’t available on Wikipedia, has a powerful effect on who they are. Approaching others as respectfully and deliberately as we approach artwork can help circumvent our natural biases and encourage a mindset of learning as opposed to one of judgment.

Categories: Opinion, The Saint