Art Lasts


Hang out around science fiction authors long enough, and you get the sense that they're all crazy.

John Scalzi claims that Donald Trump and the weather conspired to give him writer's block. Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin have cited similarly temperamental reasons for not finishing their popular series.

The ancient Romans had a saying, Ars longa, vita brevis. Moderns take it to mean that life is short, but works of art last.

We post-Renaissance types get the, "Life is short," part right. But ancients and Medievals didn't restrict the meaning of ars to "fine art". For them, it could apply to any craft.

The equivalent Greek word is techne. That's a big clue that everybody before the Modern era would have put Michelangelo and Steve Jobs in the same general category. Both made stuff according to a standard.

That's really what writing is. A carpenter makes a birdhouse by putting wood, nails, and glue together in the right configuration. An author makes a book by doing the same thing with character, setting, and conflict.

The arbitrary split between fine arts like oil painting, sculpture, and literature and crafts like carpentry, plumbing, and coding is a Modern novelty. We take it for granted, but historically it's an anomaly based on largely unexamined assumptions.

Reading the previous two paragraphs may incite the knee-jerk response that broadly classifying authors alongside plumbers is materialist reductionism that sucks the soul out of writing.

Only if you think that plumbers don't have souls.

The appeal to mysticism as justification for placing fine art in its own airy realm high above the noise and odors of the trades betrays the same Modernist bias I'm calling out.

Ancients and Medievals understood that man is spirit and flesh at once, and thus all of his actions have a spiritual dimension. There is a role for both Martha and Mary. The shoemaker is no less holy than St. Anthony.

Cartesian philosophy, with its crude mind-body dualism, caused a rupture between the mystical and the mundane that's since plagued Western thought. The body perishes, but the soul is immortal, so the soul must take priority.

That appraisal doesn't jibe with the example of a God who holds the human body in such high esteem that He became incarnate.

Imposing a false binary that relegates skilled craftsmen to grunt status while elevating "real artists" has created a class of neurotic posers who perpetually fret about muses and demons. Meanwhile, we have to wait five years to find out what happens in book three.

And because heresies always come in pairs, you get small-soulded bugmen preaching the opposite extreme: STEM and the trades are the only fields of "real value". Jobs in the arts are decadent sinecures for losers who can't make it in the grownup world.

The fault lies in the choice of interpretive key. Too many grope at the arts in the darkness of either/or. The only light that can reveal the whole beast is both/and.

All craftsmen are human beings with immortal souls. Poetry is a craft. Setting up a network in an office building can be a mystical experience.

If you're an aspiring author, ditch the angsty writers' workshop BS, and nail yourself to the wood of your desk.

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  1. This was one of the reasons I wrote the Pulp Mindset. It was to bring the aspiring artists back down to earth and show them that this is all about craft. Unfortunately, it is advice a lot of writers need even more than they require advice on how to craft a story or how to navigate NewPub. It really is a mindset problem.

    We've elevated creating entertainment over other disciplines and jobs, and that's just not right. It's just as important as any other occupation, and it also requires some level of skill to accomplish that other jobs don't. Which is fine since there are things they also do that we don't.

    But writing is still an occupation. There's no magic formula for getting it done except to do it.

    Since I started publishing four years ago I have written about 8 books, not counting scraps, near 20 short stories varying from fragments to novellas, and a best selling non-fiction book. If I only wrote when I felt "happy" or "inspired" then my output would be considerably less and I wouldn't have the growing reach I do. This isn't to brag, but to show that all one has to do is treat it like any other job.

    We worship writers, musicians, and performers, like they're high priests, when they're just as important as office workers or cashier clerks. It's all about using our individual skills as contributions to the greater whole.

    1. That's an important point I'm glad you're making. It's the great both/and. Yes, art is important. No, it's not mystical pixie dust-spreading. No more than carpentry or steam fitting.

  2. Jobs certainly saw what he was doing as art, though he'd never admit Gates was doing that also. Both were serving the needs of their customers, though each were appealing to a different audience.

  3. Jim Butcher talked about this on his old live journal. He said that he can't wait around for the muse to show up--he has a mortgage. I think that's a very succinct way of putting it. :)

  4. Also, artists will also give you the sense of being crazy. I follow a bunch of artists on Twitter (maybe that's the problem) and all of them are extremely liberal and vitriolic. There's a lot of them that I can't follow at all because the ratio of hate to art is too high. What is it about the arts that seem to attract the really immoral folks?

    1. The entertainment industry was taken over by evil gatekeepers.

    2. I think the problem has been around a LONG time. A lot of it can probably be traced to the Renaissance and Romantic movements idolizing the artist as some kind of genius with mystical insight. Many artists were known for having scandalous lives.

      But the ancient Greeks were not good, and much of their decadence in art (poems, etc.) made it to Rome via conquest. (On a trip in Italy, someone said that a Roman brothel had illustrations on the walls so customers could just point at what they wanted. I hate to imagine what sort of artist would do that. Maybe an otherwise penniless one?) I think in the Middle Ages when art was a craft and crafts were art is when it had the healthiest outlook (and some of the most stunning productivity). Many people then didn't sign their name to art, or simply put the workshop name on it, because personal glory wasn't important. Especially when building a church.

      My own speculation: I wouldn't be surprised if the people depicting scenes of pretty girls etc. found some unhealthy pleasure in their work. And with modern fame, vainglory is definitely a motivation.

  5. "Setting up a network in an office building can be a mystical experience."

    Speaking from experience, turning it off and back on again in the hopes that somehow some way it'll magically do the trick isn't all that different from a kind of ritualistic prayer.

    Though I realize that's almost the opposite of the sort of "technical expertise as art" idea you were going for with this essay.

  6. A lot of greats in science fiction had 9 to 5 jobs in Stem before they switched over so there is even modern examples of the switch over.