But is it art?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

Is writing art?

And if it is, what is editing?

If we say writing is “artful,” or “artistic,” or “an art,” we mean that we appreciate it aesthetically and admire it for the skill it evinces. But if we say not “writing is an art” but “writing is art” – or “this text is a work of art” – we connect it to an identity that is simultaneously nebulous and overloaded.

Everything has an aesthetic aspect. Though we don’t always focus on it, we do care how our car, toaster, toothbrush, and computer look. But in our culture we have decided, thanks to romanticist and classist ideas, that whatever art is or isn’t (and we argue about it a lot), an artwork must be aesthetic nobility, not working-class. If something serves an ordinary function, many people won’t accept it as art, whatever its aesthetic qualities may be. A bit over a century ago, Marcel Duchamp made the point by displaying items such as a bottle rack and a urinal in a gallery, and – in some eyes – Cinderellaed them into artworks by changing them from implements to conversation pieces.

Our romanticist ideas also construct the artist as a lone genius, producing a work of art through individual inspiration and effort: the painter paints alone; the sculptor chisels alone until the statue has been revealed from the marble; the solitary writer types out a work of perfect genius. This is actually a load of hooey – artists have always had workshops and assistants and patrons with opinions, and have typically made preparatory sketches and multiple versions… and of course writers are edited. But the ideals exist, and they push against any editorial role: if a book is a work of art, then it is not up to anyone but the author to shape it!

Most writing, of course, is overtly functional. But, like everything else, all writing has aesthetic effects. The choice of words and phrasing sets a tone. For some purposes (a parking ticket, perhaps) it can’t be too pretty or people won’t take it seriously; for others (a fancy invitation?), if it’s not pretty it’s disappointing.

Authors ought to be well-attuned to the aesthetically influential aspects of their words – smoothness, roughness, crispness, relative rarity (preciousness!), associations with certain contexts, resonances of other words. Some are better at it than others, but even those who are good at it can benefit from an audience who can assess how well they’re achieving their desired effects. And that is an important part of an editor’s function.

All writing is communication, and communication is always for effect: you want the readers to feel the right way about what you’re saying. The right editor can help the author achieve the right structure and aesthetic effect, whether in a novel or an annual report. Even something no one reads for pleasure can be a pleasure to read, and often it requires only small adjustments to sharpen the sound, rhythm, flow, and imageries. I’m not suggesting we replace “PARKING TICKET” with “VEHICULAR MISLOCATION MULCT CITATION,” but we can sometimes nudge “It is desirable that all document aspect functions exceed expectations” towards, say, “We would like all aspects of the text to work splendidly.”

We are not here to make art, whatever that may be. But we are here to help writing be as appropriately artful as possible.

2 responses to “But is it art?

  1. Love it! Yes we are here to make writing as artful as possible! You are so right on this one. Because aesthetics shouldn’t take over sense. Writing has to make some sense. If I have to choose between beauty and sense I would pick sense. Now sense wrapped up in artful sentences is so much better. Thank you for sharing

  2. “Appropriately artful writing”
    YES! That’s what I’m aiming for in all my blog posts and books.
    (Someday I may hit the target.)

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