By Ariel Mo

Prompt: The painter Piet Mondrian stated, “The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.” Do you believe that artists are conduits for art, or its creators? Please explain why, with examples where possible.

Art demands authenticity. Only when the artist is honest with himself can he create effective, expressive art that is entirely, uniquely, his own.

Let me explain.

First, we must define art. An audience member, watching a company of dancers, will find the performance incomprehensible until he understands the particular language of the dance in the context of this dance. Each spin or jump, gesture or look, is but one facet—emotion, character, idea, or location—of the whole. The viewer follows these facets, examining them until finally they speak plainly to him and form a coherent whole: a narrative.

Thus we conclude that art is a language of expression.

But what makes an ordinary gesture, sound, or picture more than ordinary? The difference here lies in the intention. In the martial arts, a practitioner’s intent determines the strength of his movements. He breathes rhythmically; he shouts the syllables of his art to add strength and power to each thrust, each pull. I experienced this first-hand when I took Tai Chi lessons a year or so ago. “Breathe,” the instructor told me. “Concentrate. Believe. Do it.” And suddenly, I wasn’t just pushing aimlessly with an empty palm. There was force in my movements, and I was striking something—something almost…tangible. My intention made all the difference.

Naturally, intent is personal. This is most obviously evidenced by contrasting interpretations of the same piece of music. When sight reading Bach’s Fugue in F-sharp minor, BWV 883, I instinctively played in an energetic, prideful sort of way. But my piano teachers were shocked: they’d always performed the piece at a much slower tempo, hearing sadness and solemnity in its subject.

It is distinctions like these that make intent personal, that make art personal. Neither my Tai Chi instructor nor my piano teachers could have channeled their intentions through me. I had to concentrate inwardly and add myself to my movements, to my music. And there, in that giving of oneself, lies the act of creation so vital to all works of art.

Before considering creation, however, we must recognize that art comes from individuals. Though one might say that art is channeled through the artist when he is inspired—literally “breathed into”—by the outside world, it is his particular observation of his world that becomes his art. It’s how he understands or speaks about his world. It’s how he shapes these feelings and perspectives into melodies, pictures, or words.

Here, it becomes dangerously easy to get tangled in semantics. If his art is a reaction to his world, one might ask, doesn’t that mean that the artist’s outside world has played a role in the making of his art, thus reducing him to a mere “conduit”?

Sure—if we limit “creation” to its strictest terms. Having all grown up in some sort of community or another, it’s valid to say that our thoughts are never entirely, uniquely, our own. But we know these thoughts can be different—are different. Furthermore, it is a conscious choice of the artist as to which of his feelings and perspectives of the outside world he wishes to shape into melodies, pictures, or words, just as it is his choice as to which part of his thoughts, his personality, he will add to his art.

And therein lies the act of creation.

Any piece can be only a compilation of sounds. (Just look up Synthesia.) It is when the artist is brave enough to sprinkle an authentic dash of himself into his piece that his work becomes expressive enough, holds enough intention, to be art.

For actors and musicians, the score and script are guides to which part of ourselves is required in that performance. In the largo e mesto movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major (Op. 10 No. 3), for example, I found it difficult to relate to the aura of utter devastation and despair the writing exuded—until finally, I stopped imagining reactions to fake, external calamities, instead pulling up memories of personal sadness and disappointment.

One might argue that I’d lost Beethoven’s original intention. However, the difference in how each person responds to the life he lives and the world he sees does not affect his capacity to feel the same emotions as others. The feelings will just seem different. The music will just have different nuances. After all, art is personal.

Of course, studying a work of music isn’t simply about fitting the score with the correct memory or emotion. It involves learning the harmonic cues in the counterpoint, listening to other performers’ interpretations, reading about the context in which the piece was written. Yet none of these are as daunting as the aforementioned act of creation, for it compels the performer to come to terms with himself.

To return to my example—those memories of sadness and disappointment? I’d locked them away; I didn’t want to think about them. But Beethoven forced me to break into that closet and coax out those skeletons, even amplify them, to create the right atmosphere of tragedy that his music required.

Here is the great conspiracy of art: by demanding vulnerability, art inspires humility. It pushes the limits of whatever illusion the artist has constructed to comfort himself, because unless he is honest with himself, his art just won’t be real enough.

Tai Chi practitioners cannot make art until they move with sufficient conviction. Dancers cannot create effective, comprehensible narratives without believing in the scenes that they are painting with their gestures.

Art is a language of expression. Should an artist dare to express a narrative, he will find himself sharing a part of himself with the public in order to give life to the story he (or the original composer or choreographer) intends his work to tell. This “giving in” to a greater narrative, this sharing, is an act of creation. And this kind of creation—recognizing certain parts of yourself for what they are, and putting some of that in your work, and exposing that work for all the world to see—that’s a pretty humbling process in itself.

Special thanks & partial credits to Ms Meneilly’s Block 6 AP Lang class for unintentionally helping me brainstorm!