Art is about seeing things in a different way

I used to define art only as a creative activity and as a counterpart to design. The following had for years been my definition of art and design:

  • If you create something because you simply want to or have to, you are making a piece of art.
  • If you have a purpose more important than your creative impulse, you are making a piece of design.

But these points were refuted very easily by my friend:

  1. The great composers, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc., were all great artists. Nobody calls them designers.
  2. Yet they were all "designing" music, composing tunes that cater to the taste of their patrons.

He was right. My beautiful theory crumbled in seconds–not because he found faulty logic but because he simply pointed out what I knew–but was trying to suppress. I stopped thinking about what art is, resorting to the cop-out statement "Art is something you cannot define." It also felt silly to think about art while not making some of my own.


Some months later, a hint about the solution to the mystery came unexpectedly.


I have been attending a monthly event called Red Room, held in a beautiful studio in the center of Taipei. Red Room is an event without events. You go there, stand up in the front, and express yourself. Some read their poems. Some sing. Some dance. Some share their blogs (yours truly). When you are not in the front, you become part of the happy audience. Most of the "performers" are not professional; some have never before stood up in front of an audience.  It is a place to appreciate how unique and interesting each of us is.


One night, as I was expecting to hear a song, the performer asked the audience to sing with her. She sang the introduction, followed by the audience singing the bridge. Music-wise, the result was–to be honest–completely out of tune. But as a good Red Roomer, I stayed there, making sure my smile didn’t change into a burst of laughter, and sang with the others. There we were, 50 of us, singing in cacophony but in unison.


During the second verse, a weird sensation was occurring inside me. Instead of sheer amusement, a genuine feeling of joy was appearing, followed by a shade of sadness. Yes, I was getting happy and sad singing that song. Happy because the out-of-tune singing was turning into a song in its own right–I never thought one could do that with a Björk song– and I was taking pride in the fact that I was in it. It was as if I was creating something that I didn't know I was capable of. And I was sad because I knew that moment wouldn't last long. In fact, it was going to disappear in a matter of minutes.


The whole experience had nothing to do with the quality of the performance, which was anything but "professional" as in established markets. It just resonated with my mind, something buried deep within my memories. Maybe it was about my early memory of singing in front of the classmates in embarrassment because I was totally missing the tune and my friends were all laughing at me. Maybe I could finally allow myself to sing something out loud without trying to make it "smooth." Who knows.


After that incident, I knew I wouldn't see group singing–including karaoke–in the same way again. It just changed how I perceive singing. I realized that all I had in my mind, up until then, was that “singing” was to follow the original song pitch-perfect. The idea of morphing a song into something else just didn't exist for me.


It finally dawned on me that art is about changing how we perceive. Perceive what? The world, in a fixed way. Art does not reside merely in the artists, nor their works. Art is something that we perceive: a chemical reaction. In other words, the audience creates the art, and the artist is someone who catalyzes the change through his or her own unique perception. I don't know if this is the correct definition of art. But does it matter? It works for me.


Now I might have solved the dilemma about the great composers: their music, without exception, has the power to change how we perceive the world. Who cares, then, if they made their music for their patrons, or "sold out" in current term? Their works all–work.


P.S. If you want to experience the fluid nature of our perception and reality, this movie shows it in a brilliantly weird way: Waking Life, recommended by my editor Sherry Lamoreaux.