What and why is art? — Follow-up on Jesus’ Son

I mentioned in my post on Jesus’ Son that I was going to be discussing it with classmates and would post if anything interesting came up in the discussion. It was mostly the usual kind of discussion you have in that kind of craft class — what is he doing, how is he doing it, why should we care.

It was the discussion surrounding the last part — the “why should we care?” question — that was intriguing to me. Keep in mind that this is a class of creative writers — we’re all in either the fiction or the poetry programs at Miami. Around the end of the three-hour class period, the discussion swung to exactly why we read this book in particular. One classmate said he had read it three times now and feels that he should be teaching it in his own lower-level English classes because of all the acclaim it receives, but wasn’t himself sure of the merit of the book. After all, the character is reprehensibly doing illegal and morally decrepit things, with little or no redemption. There’s no “I learned this lesson . . .” or character growth as far as we can tell — these stories are just accounts of characters taking drugs and doing some shitty stuff. What’s the point? my classmate wanted to know.

This sparked a debate that I will say I was shocked to hear coming from creative writing students. Some folks agreed with him — that there is no redeeming feature in this collection, that it was hard to read and harder to analyze, because nothing “good” comes from the actual content. However, one man said that the fact that we were having this discussion means that Johnson succeeded as an artist — because the point of art is to force people to think, to view the world in different ways than what’s immediately obvious to us.

I agree with him. Art doesn’t have to apologize for being gritty and real. In the real world, not everyone beats their addictions. Shitty things happen. Not every story has an up side. It’s the responsibility of us as writers to represent the world for what it is, what we want it to be, and everything in between. I think Johnson should be commended for his honesty.

I’d love to know what my readers think. Why does this book make us feel a certain way? Why is art? What is art? Big questions, I know. Looking forward to your answers!

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4 thoughts on “What and why is art? — Follow-up on Jesus’ Son

  1. Going off of your last blog and this blog I have to say I agree with you and the gentleman above. It made you think. It made you look at the world from a different perceptive and so for as disturbing as it was it made you think. Therefore, the author did succeed. Personally I think that is what makes reading worth while. Now I am not saying that I don’t enjoy a sweet and soppy historical romance with a happy ending now and again, you’ve seen my bookshelf, but I get just a bit more enjoyment when I read books that make me look at the world with a fresh lens. To get to pull back from reality and think about something for a while.
    It’s a completely different tone but when I read this it semi reminded me of when I read Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men. I HATED those books because it was just too awful and too horrible to think of those things but it made me angry. It made me feel. It made me question. I think that’s why writers have a responsibility to invoke emotion in their readers and we as readers should hold up our end of the deal and not only respond but spark conversations like this on how we feel. Our duty as an audience is to spread the spark to ignite a flame to start change…. and that’s my two cents worth 🙂

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