Many people say that art is most powerful when it makes you think. I would take that further. Art is at its most powerful when you don't know you're being affected or, rather, when you don't expect to be affected.
I am writing a book about a British poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose work I argue was greatly affected by his experiences with music. (For example, see "The keen stars were twinkling.") In Shelley's time, poetry was arguably more popular than music because writers and critics, many of whom were the paparazzi of their day, published the latest gossip, news, and political ideas in verse.
Poetry still does this in many ways (there is a lot of amazing work being written). Yet, it does not capture the public imagination the same way that music does. I am not here to declare the death of poetry, but rather its continual rebirth through its relation with other art forms. Poetry, in a very real sense, is everywhere--in song lyrics, advertisements, and magazines.
By corollary, art, in a very real sense, is everywhere. We are surrounded by it, from the statue you drive by everyday to the song you can't get out of your head all morning.
So, why does the very subject of art, particularly poetry and opera, cause people to groan or turn away in disinterest? Without pretention, I would argue that it's simply because people are no longer conscious of when they're experiencing art because it is so much a fundamental part of our daily landscape.
Art can be clever. Sneaky art: an unexpected experience with the creative expression of the human imagination that sticks with you. Obviously relative to an individual, but it's still art.
Here's an example. My guilty pleasure is the show "So You Think You Can Dance." But, the routines are sometimes forgettable, even if impressive in skill. However, one routine from the 2008-2009 season, choreographed to Pit Bull's "Calle Ocho (I Know You Want Me)," was literally the most riveting expression of human physicality I've ever seen--on television or the stage. (The YouTube video of this routine doesn't do it much justice.) The combination of music, choreography, and dance presented a scene with an almost primitive energy that was mesmerizing. The screen went dark and the dancers took off. Incredible.
Having seen Pavarotti as Cavaradossi in Tosca and Domingo in Pagliacci, I cite this random television experience as another moment of artistic awe. It was sneaky art, totally unexpected from American television on a random Wednesday, but art nonetheless.
Look around you. You might find art.
This is the first in a column that will appear regularly on Mondays about art and my experiences finalizing my book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.