Love, art, storytelling (and activism?)
An aesthetic can be born from pain. An aesthetic can be born from beauty. I suppose an aesthetic can also be born from cotton candy. Or all of the above.
I often use the word aesthetic. I think about my aesthetic a lot. When I encounter a new artist, I search in their work for the language of their aesthetic as if listening to their heart beats, and once I can feel it, I join them in conversation.
But aesthetic can be an imprecise word because it means something different to many people. Often the word aesthetic is seen as focused on determining the beauty of an object, and an aesthete is seen as someone who is removed from real life, immersed in art, perhaps even decadently so. I think our aesthetic is our lens upon the world, though. Our aesthetic holds an existential position.
Here’s how I defined it in my book The Art of Brevity.
The Greek term aisthesis means sensual perception, so an aesthetic is rooted in the feeling of experience. An aesthetic offers an entry point into our relationships with people, objects, events, environments, the past, the present, the future, and even the political structures in which we are all enmeshed. An aesthetic might seem distant from a belief system or a faith, yet an aesthetic forms the foundation for how a story or belief is expressed. An aesthetic is a conversation. Our aesthetic determines how we experience life and how we express it.”
I mention this because I recently encountered a way to re-think and expand my own aesthetic.
When I took creative writing classes years ago, the prevailing aesthetic instruction was to minimize politics in your stories and to stay away from anything that might be considered activist in nature.
I think this was for two main reasons:
Writers were supposed to minimize didacticism in stories because art wasn’t supposed to overtly teach or go anywhere near propaganda; and
There was an emphasis on psychological realism in characterization, which had more to do with the inner workings of a character’s mind and their emotional life than their place in a world that was acting upon them with its power structures.
I’ve largely written within that framework without questioning it too much, but I recently talked with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah on my Write-minded podcast, and he offered a way for me to expand that aesthetic in interesting ways.
Love is as love does
His aesthetic is rooted in love, as is his activism. He says that art is love taking forms that we can feel and perceive with our senses, and that same love gives birth to action, defined as responding to others and the world with care.
I’d never thought about how love spawns our aesthetics, but at the heart of every artist is a sincere desire to express a vision, and the same applies to someone who loves. Love helps us notice, to pay attention, and in paying attention, we go beyond ourselves. We feel another, and in feeling them, we care for them.
Our art stirs our emotions and makes us feel alive in the same way love does. Our art takes us on a journey to places we’ve never been. Our art reveals the world to us, in its glories, its mundanities, and its troubles.
To create with love is to feel joy, pleasure, awe, but also to feel fear, anger, or disgust. But love is not just a feeling, as bell hooks stressed. Love is an action—it’s “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
Adjei-Brenyah’s new novel, Chain-Gang All-Stars, might not initially appear to be a novel of love. It takes place in a near-future America where our already dystopian, private prison system grows even more dystopian by creating a kind of gladiator sport in which prisoners fight to the death for their freedom.
Adjei-Brenyah shows how a lack of love is at the center of our present dystopia. He takes on a prison system that doesn’t allow us to respond to people with compassion when they have a mental illness or a drug addiction or are afflicted with poverty. He takes on a government that has the capability to murder people.
“I write what matters to me, and it matters to me that we have a world where people are suffering greatly,” he said.
“If the house is on fire, I’m not going to tell you about what I had in my fridge that day,” he said. “I’m going to talk about the house that is on fire. And the house has been on fire. So that’s what I choose to write about.”
An “apolitical aesthetic” isn’t possible because the choice of what you represent holds a position in the world by definition.
“The questions you ask and the things you focus on are political,” he said. “Every aspect of our ability to thrive or move through spaces has political implications, so it’s a great privilege to imagine that you live outside of those implications.”
The psychologist Erich Fromm said that love is an art. Like any other art, it is something that we have to learn to do: we have to learn and practice love just like we have to learn and practice drawing or playing the piano.
Our aesthetic is a practice. Our activism is a practice. And if they’re born of love, they intersect, or they might even be the same thing. Our aesthetic lives in a world and shapes itself to that world so as to shape the world.
So the question is: How do you practice love, and how do you represent that love on the page?
“When we love we can let our hearts speak,” bell hooks said.
That’s a solid aesthetic.
“Art must be an expression of love or it is nothing.”
“Love is as love does.”