What the Lightning Said: My Definition of Art

Art, by my definition, is a report of what the lightning said. It’s bound up with the ontological mystery (the mystery of being itself); an artist’s attempt to represent to others an experience of that mystery (what it feels like to try to make sense of suffering, or live in a consumer society, or watch a flock of birds in spring, or know poverty, love, or indifference).

It is to reproduce to others the inner truth of some matter as truthfully as possible (from the artist’s point-of-view).

By such a definition, art is the product of a struggle, as when the literary artist, Mark Twain, in an 1888 letter to George Bainton, famously wrote of the importance of finding exactly the right word (le mot juste) for conveying one’s meaning:

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

To get as near as possible to a perfect correspondence between what the artist wants to say or represent and what she actually finds before her on the page or canvas requires a constant effort, and when that effort reaches its mark—or gets very near to it—the audience gasps and says, “Wow! That’s true! That’s really good! It’s very near to perfect! Beautiful! Bravo!”

Art is the catching and caging of William Blake’s tiger (or, at least, its fleeting tail), and we admire the artist who achieves it.

But art that falls pretty far from its mark can be interesting as well, for we may find in it some partial success in capturing something true—something that is unmistakably trying to break out into the light. We may like—even prefer—this imperfection to more polished or thoroughly realized artistic achievements because it represents back to us our own imperfect struggles.

The dignity of the essay—the attempt—is admirable and the artist is a kind of hero to us.

But what of the artist who eschews the heroic; that is, the ironic artist? What do we make, in other words, of the humorist, the Jackson Pollock-like intuitive randomizer, the anti-representationalist, the deconstructor, the postmodernist?

To get an answer to this question, it seems to me that one needs an answer to another question: what ways might people live? And when you think about it, there are really only four ways that humans have figured out how to move through this vale of tears:

  • with cowardice (and its attendant pessimism, despair, refusal to think, failure of discipline, and unjust resorts to violence and deceit);
  • with tragic or optimistic heroism;
  • with humor (that is, ironically); and
  • with spontaneous life energies (This is what Buddhists call our “spontaneous Buddha nature,” as when you notice something, in passing, beautiful about yourself in a mirror, something you’re not even trying to achieve. If you don’t notice your own “Buddha nature” with regularity, you are nevertheless likely to notice this sort of effortlessness with some frequency in others, especially the young, as when children play or teenagers flirt on a lawn. Their energy and beauty far outrun their conscious effort. Water flowing in a creek has this quality; as do birds in flight, etc.)

Most of us muddy along, alternating between these attitudes, rarely self-consistent with our preferred ideal. We “laugh that we might not cry”; we try to be heroic because—well, what else is there to do but keep trying in life? As we age and experience less and less of the grace associated with spontaneous energies, we may find ourselves living out rather manic cycles of cowardice, heroism, and irony. Thus the ironists and intuitionists of the art world—in all their varieties—are reflecting key truths of the human experience as well, trying to capture what it feels like to go through the world inconsistently, accompanied by irony or spontaneity (or the failures of spontaneity). A disconcerting honesty about the human condition is the postmodernist’s gift to art. Somebody has to say it.

And what happens to art when it becomes an identifiable artifact in the world—a thing set apart as art?

It becomes an idol. It stands in for God, the ontological mystery, the “something that is true.” We are suddenly anxious to preserve the object; to see that its beauty or truth, being a delicate achievement in an entropic world, is not lost to the accumulations of static and ruin. We want to gather around the object—to see it, perhaps to touch it; to photograph it. We want to get in the vicinity of what Stephen Greenblatt calls, in his essay, “Resonance and Wonder” (1990), an artifact’s surviving “quantum of energy.”

Like radiation, art is always ticking down.

The genius who created the art and the surviving historical artifacts once present around the art, also take on electrical charges: we want to see where the art was made, walk the streets the artist walked, touch the writer’s desk, or contemplate where Leonardo’s thumb had been on the canvas, smoothing out a brush stroke. We want an art historian, or the plaque accompanying the art in the museum, to provide us with context so that we can get still closer to the art—closer to the source. We want to experience the art in a quiet and “clean, well-lighted place” where we can concentrate.

We are trying, in short, to get back to the origination: when the artist’s mind touched (or nearly touched) the mind of God and said something swooningly true about this existence; something worthy of contemplation; of a second and third look.

We even project onto the literary author or artist a theodicy of wholeness (Greenblatt, in the same essay as mentioned above, calls this projection “secular theodicy”): the idea that every word or brushstroke, even where it appears botched and so to lack meaning, in fact conveys meaning, the very meaning intended by the artist. We just have to trust the genius of the artist; to work, as the artist worked, to reach this meaning—to discover it—for it’s really, really there.

Of course, postmodern artists deconstruct this very notion, highlighting the absurd and the great deal that falls beneath intention. But we all understand the impulse—art as a sublimation of religion, of what the lightning said.


The below enigmatic painting (image source: Wikipedia Commons), by Giorgione (titled The Tempest, c. 1505), captures the mysterious lightning that I’m talking about. It is the flashbulb in the dark, which both reveals and perplexes at the same time; an approximation to the light, but not the light. It’s what art is. It’s why we keep trying to do it.

File:Giorgione 019.jpg

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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