What is art? Meaning in Novels

Last week jumping off from a review I touched on the role of meaning in novels. Specifically I asked readers to evaluate this statement :

“[isn’t] storytelling all about finding relationships between things? Isn’t that why we write and read novels – to prove to ourselves and each other that the world means something?”

I had insinuated that I knew where Dan Green would come down on this issue in order to elicit a response. But in the comments Dan politely said “you first.” So I thought I would flush out a few ideas for Dan.

First let me say that I have no formal training in anything approaching this subject. These ideas have been put together out of my own eclectic reading over the years and my gut feelings on the subject. If you are looking for formal theory that wrestles with other schools of thought or robust conceptualizations that are logically coherent you might be disappointed. This is amateur hour at the Apollo.

At its basic nature I do think art is about transcendence and meaning; and therefore relationships. Without getting too deep into it, my basic theory of art is that Art (with a capital A) can be distinguished from mere craft by rising above itself and its literal structure; by becoming more than the sum of its parts it becomes more than mere “thing.” Craft, or art with a lower case “a,” can be beautiful, interesting, and require a great deal of skill but it is just what it is (an illustration, a piece of furniture, a photograph, etc.). “Art” on the other hand rises above this level and gets at something deeper.

What is this something deeper? Well, I will admit to being a rather old fashioned humanist on this front (in a general liberal arts sense not in the “secular humanist” sense). I think Art teaches us something about what it means to be human. It transcends the literal and obvious and communicates something deeper about us and the world we live in; what is possible, what is desirable, etc. In my worldview this ultimately leads to thoughts about the divine, but that is another issue altogether.

So in this way I agree with Betty Carter that great novels are about finding meaning; about the relationships between things. I find this fascinating, the idea that by “making things up” one can get a deeper sense of the truth. Russell Kirk spoke of the illative sense, a sort of intuition and imagination that comes from a variety of experiences and that can’t be clearly tied to logic alone. This, I think, is at the heart of great literature. As a result, intuition, imagination and a sense of the deeper meaning of things is a crucial part of the novel. It helps us see beyond our own lives and our own perspective. We “see” things that we would not otherwise see or understand through a strictly literal or factual perspective. We use senses and make connections outside of a 1 + 1 = 2 understanding.

Now, this doesn’t mean that novels or stories that don’t rise to this level aren’t useful and enjoyable anymore than a well designed piece of furniture or a well drawn illustration aren’t beneficial. They serve their purpose and can be quite satisfying. But to me, at the heart of art – and therefore literature – is something deeper.

I hope this has made a modicum of sense. Perhaps it is a collection of cliches and truisms, but it works for me. As always, feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts and ideas.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. I always find that when you take something down to it’s base and just state the facts, honestly and with no agenda. There is a poety and simpleness that rings true to how you describe or defind a subject matter. I am glad to have you as my other half.

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