Truman Capote once said that John Kerouac was not a writer, he simply knew how to type. There are many people who probably have never heard of either Capote or Kerouac and then there are those who are big fans. Art is more often than not in the eye of the beholder.
I don’t care much for all of the comic book movies other than the Dark Knight series, but it’s not my dime that pays the admissions that make them blockbusters. We’ve all had the experience of sitting in an English class being lectured about the qualities of artistic perfection of a particular piece that felt like torture to read. We are made to feel somehow ignorant for not understanding and sharing the opinions of the so called experts.
Enjoying the artistic bent of writers, painters, actors and musicians is a very personal experience. Works of art either speak to us or they do not. The best of them stay inside our minds, unwilling to move far from our thoughts. It’s often difficult to explain why we like something. As they say it’s all a matter of taste and to suggest that there is indeed one universal way of judging is to be ridiculous. Some of us were stunned by a viewing of Roma and others preferred the fantasy of Mary Poppins. Both movies are about women who care for families but the take on each is as different as any two considerations might be.
When I was in high school I had the same English teacher for four years. Luckily he was an exceptional educator and his class was perhaps my all time favorite. He required us to write a two hundred word theme each week. If you do the math you realize that in four years time we completed almost one hundred fifty of those essays, each of which was based on a single prompt that was often no more than one word. The challenge was to create an interesting story or discussion within the confines of the requirements. It became a kind of game for us, as we vied to come up with the most unique idea each week.
Back then I had fewer life experiences and a great deal less knowledge so in most weeks I dwelled on the prompt night and day attempting to come up with a feasible way to approach it. Sometimes I would be furiously scratching something on a paper late on Sunday night just to meet the deadline. In those moments I have to admit to feeling like little more than a typist, but often those midnight endeavors resulted in my most interesting work. I never really knew what would tickle my teacher’s fancy.
The greatest honor was to have our teacher read one or two of his favorite offerings. Over the course of our four years together I began to realize that there were dozens and dozens of unique ways of approaching the exact same topic. Each week my classmates and I created humor, pathos, science fiction, nonfiction, character development, and all sorts of crazy ideas. I learned from that exercise that artistic expression might come from anywhere and its forms are as malleable as putty.
It was that same English teacher who introduced me to the writing of Truman Capote, and I found that he was indeed a gifted writer. I devoured several of his books and became fascinated with him as a personality. He was a spinner of words for sure, but his greatest talent was in creating memorable characters, unforgettable souls. I always felt as though I somehow knew the people in his books. I felt that he must have truly loved them to have given them so much life.
John Kerouac on the other hand spun tales of adventure that are so enticing that I find myself wanting to sell my home and hit the road with my trailer never to return until I have been to every last place that he described. He is far from being no more than a typist. He too tells a love story but his is about travel and the remarkable places and people that one encounters when on the road.
I imagine that if my old English teacher had scrawled the phrase “love story” on the board as the weekly topic for a theme either of the men could have written remarkable papers by using the stories that they already had. That’s the real beauty of art. It has no boundaries or interpretations. It simply is an offering that mirrors the unleashed talent of the producer’s soul.
There were once two major newspapers in Houston and I was a fan of the now defunct Houston Post. Each morning I immediately searched for a column by Leon Hale. Mr. Hale was a folksy writer whose style was conversational and homespun. He wrote about people and places and ideas as though he was chewing the fat on someone’s front porch on a lazy afternoon. I was fascinated by his stories and enjoyed his writing style. His pieces invariably made me feel good about humanity. I suspect that under the pen of someone else the same situations might have been described quite differently and with a darker tone. Leon Hale preferred humor and understanding which is why I faithfully read his tales.
I sometimes wonder why one artist catches hold and others remain almost anonymous. I find myself thinking that there must be much great talent that we never see. I laugh at awards programs because invariably they draw the ire of the viewers simply because we so often disagree with the choice of winners. In many ways only the test of time will reveal the enduring artists whose universal ways of displaying the truth and beauty of the world somehow remains relevant.
I prefer not to rank art but rather to marvel at the human spirit that moves us to create something totally impractical but incredibly wonderful. I am overwhelmed by something in our natures that calls us to momentarily abandon the practical in order to create wonder. Sadly we do not always honor our artists as highly as we do those who build and engineer, and yet their creative genius is in many ways the most unique and magnificent aspect of our human potential. It is the part of us that reveals our very souls and elevates us from the muck of existence. For that reason we all need to keep typing and singing and dancing and creating, for somewhere in our midst is a person who will provide us with an experience that makes us soar.