Easily Amused “Amusement”

I wouldn’t dare to try and define the word “art,” and would be just as reluctant to give any criteria by which art could be judged as “good” or “bad.”  However, I don’t think it will be too controversial for me to claim that as a general rule, things that are assigned the label of “art” have the quality of being engaging or compelling in some manner.  Whether in the form of a song, theater production, sculpture, slam poem, primal scream or urinal, art finds a way to command your attention, at least for a moment. It compels you to engage with it somehow.

This active relationship to the thing we call “art” seems to be universal, being shared by people around the world and saturating our cultural milieu at every level, from religion to entertainment.  This tells me that this relationship is fundamental – for some reason, we need art.  As far as I can tell, the ways in which something can be engaging or compelling are infinite as well as entirely subjective.  For this reason, it seems absurd to place strict limitations on what constitutes art.  All I can do is attempt to consider what art means to me. I invite you to do the same.

In my experience, art has asked me to listen, has invited me to step outside my own preconceptions, has challenged my sense of identity, has made me deeply uncomfortable, has elevated my spirits, has made me cry and laugh and everything in between.  What exactly is happening when you become deeply absorbed in the plot of a good movie or find yourself transfixed by the beauty of a painting?  You could philosophize endlessly about this, but I prefer a simple, albeit unsophisticated, explanation.

I like to imagine that in those moments, I come under the spell of a Muse – those spirits of artistic inspiration that were so revered by the Ancient Greeks.  The Greeks thought that their great myths, dramas and poetry had their true provenance in these Muses, and that the artists who brought forth these works were merely “in tune” with them.

I interpret the influence of a Muse as a sort of metaphor for the activity of one’s subconscious creative potential, but I think the Greeks can still help explain what is going on when art grabs hold of you and won’t let go.  In that state of captivation, it seems as if the Muses themselves are serenading you, their songs wordless but given form by the hands of the artist.  It is as though the true achievement of the artist is the offering of themselves as a conduit for the Muse’s inspiration, the object of the whole endeavor being the eventual impression made upon the one who listens to, views or otherwise receives the art.  The Muses have something to tell each of us, but they require the medium of an art form and a receptive artist.  The mark of their voices is that you can’t help but to listen.

In this process, something unique is distilled from a collective, impersonal substrate.  You can call that substrate Calliope or Terpsichore, or if you prefer, call it the subconscious impulse to be creative.  I sense the subtle influence of a Muse in any work of art that manages to be personal and universal simultaneously.  I don’t mean to imply that all art must be like this – for me, the concept of Muses is just a mythological way to consider where art comes from and what it does to us – and for us.

This is the sort of thing I hope to explore in this column.  I am interested especially in people’s experiences of art, whether they are creating it or consuming it.  There is no shortage of engaging, compelling folks at Lawrence creating engaging, compelling things; I want to get to know them and their own experiences and perspectives.  I want to learn what amuses them and why.

As you can probably tell, I fumbled around quite a bit while writing this introductory column, searching for the best way to organize my thoughts.  It will undoubtedly be an ongoing process as I find my voice in the coming weeks and months, but I hope you’ll join me each week – it’ll be a good time.  I invite any and all suggestions, comments and critiques – please contact me any time at mackenzj@lawrence.edu.

I was disappointed to learn that the word “Muse” has no relation to the word “amuse,” the latter having a Latin root.  Even still, I invite you to consider whether you have ever sensed something like a Muse when you feel tingles down your spine as you listen to your favorite song or receive a sudden flash of inspiration that demands to be given form.  If not, perhaps the best place to begin searching for your Muse is in those things that afford you simple, genuine amusement.