A Philistine Reads About Art

I’ve read too many fantasy books about artists recently and it has left me with a tendency to slam things down on the table and shout ‘Bullshit!’ at intervals, which was not a good way to begin mandatory inservice at my job… but that’s another story. To proceed:

Fantasy authors who write about art are pretty certain to be in favor of it. So the books I read presented art as a vital source of deep insight and mystical power, the key to solving the problems of humans and faerie alike, yadda yadda, and after a thousand pages or so of this I began to ask myself ‘What vital purpose have these authors achieved with their art? What problems of humans and faerie alike have they solved with it? What have they done that authors of the past didn’t do in their spare time, after completing jobs that really made a difference in the world?”

I really like art, don’t misunderstand me, and all that kept me out of it in my youth was the complete lack of representational art in the art department at my alma mater.  I follow artists’ blogs and go to galleries.  My old grad school letters are more full of plots for unwritten novels than of anything to do with my research, and as recently as fifteen years ago I was still considering a program in scientific illustration. But I’m also prone to questions like this, which is why it’s a good thing I picked science over art when I chose my major. And it’s a good thing that I ended up in a job where I teach pathophysiology to nurses, rather than the ichthyology/ evolutionary biology position I was aiming at, which would have had very similar weak spots. It’s even better luck that I ended up in an outcomes-based curriculum, where my desire not to waste students’ time with a single thing they will not actually use is an asset.

Perhaps that’s why I have such a strong negative reaction to these books; they give me the shivers, making me realize what a close call I’ve had and how easily I might have ended up in a career I felt defensive about.

One of my main goals in life is to not do things I have to feel defensive about, so asking me to enter imaginatively to the life of someone in that position is setting yourself up to be judged harshly, by high standards. This issue is an important one to me. I do not welcome frivolous, predetermined, self-serving depictions of it. If an author is going to raise it, raise it! Give me an honest discussion of the strongest arguments against your position and the well-supported reply that I would need to be able to give myself every morning as I looked in the mirror, if I had gone into the arts. Otherwise, why bring it up at all?


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