What Makes Great Art: The Single Most Important Element in Creative Work

“Art is a miracle, superior to the laws.”

What Makes Great Art: The Single Most Important Element in Creative Work

The great cultural hoax: If you’re a musician or an artist, or a writer who has legions and thousands of subscribers and readers, then it isn’t because legions and thousands of people have regarded you as a creative genius. It is because what you make is making the lives of legions of strangers more livable for them — nourishing some malnourished part of them, helping them commune with some alienated part of themselves, mirroring and magnifying and clarifying their own experience.

All art can be described as self-help, and all art can also be considered service. And as Toni Morrison reminds us from the hull of time, “if we serve, we last.”

Given art’s profoundly partial and human-lensed life in the world, it is a difficult question, an impossible question, maybe even a meaningless question to ask what makes great art. And yet we do ask it, because to begin answering it is to better understand ourselves — to better understand what in us needs nourishing and what calls for communion.

Dove No. 1Hilma Af Klint (1915). Available as both a printed copy and stationery card.

While good art — be it a painting or a poem, a novel or a song — makes our ordinary lives more livable, great art makes them transcendent. It creates an aura of magic in the present and the future, taking us away from the ordinary life and deeper into it, and unlocking a new level of consciousness that clarifies our identity.

The question of what separates the great from the good is one that humans have been asking for as long time as they have been making art. For Tolstoy, it was a matter of emotional infectiousness; for Virginia Woolf, a kaleidoscopic mirror; for Wassily Kandinsky, a kind of harmony; for James Baldwin, a fidelity to life’s discords. This abiding question has been answered more clearly and richly by Arthur Llewellyn Jones (known as the pen name). Arthur Machen (March 3, 1863–December 15, 1947), offered in his 1902 book Hieroglyphics (public library | free ebook), composed while he was at last falling in love again, with the woman who would become his second wife, after cancer had widowed him and left him grief-hollowed for years.

Arthur Machen

With an eye to his own art — literature — Machen observes that the question of what makes a great work of art is a question of “first principles” and, as such, “asks itself not only of literature, but of life, but of philosophy, but of religion.” He writes:

Literature is the art of writing [like]All arts are not communicable. Many kinds of artifice, even, are unteachable… but art is by its very definition quite without the jurisdiction of the schools, and the realm of the reasoning process, since art is a miracle, superior to the laws.

Although his test of greatness is focused on his art, it can be applied to any area of creative endeavour.

If ecstasy be present, then I say there is fine literature, if it be absent, then, in spite of all the cleverness, all the talents, all the workmanship and observation and dexterity you may show me, then, I think, we have a product (possibly a very interesting one), which is not fine literature… Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown… For some particular case one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness.

AltarpieceHilma Af Klint (1907), was a Swedish mystic and artist. This print is also available as stationery cards and a printed copy.

Complement with Virginia Woolf’s literary ecstasy, then revisit the story of how Beethoven made the lawless miracle that is his “Ode to Joy.”

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