This is a republishing of the Shoulders of Giants newsletter.
👨🏫 Topic: Art lets you live more life
📸 Visuals: Felicia Chiao’s paintings of curiosity and feeling overwhelmed
🔍 Quote: The “messages” from art are up to the audience
📜 Passage: Art is about noticing
I’m full of lost thoughts and feelings.
Most of what runs through my head from moment to moment comes and goes without getting acknowledged. Life’s just too fast to stop and reflect on everything. So without knowing it, I get left in the dark.
Music and movies remind me of this all the time. They surprise me with what I don’t realize about myself.
I can hang out with friends I’ve known for years without batting an eye, but after watching Shawshank Redemption, I wanted to tell them all that they’re my brothers. I thought about how much I love the trust and dependability that goes unspoken in great friendships and how having that circle gets me close to having everything I need in life.
That’s the power of art. It shines a light on those lost feelings and becomes a reference I use to find them again. Now when I struggle to understand how I feel about my friendships, I think of that ending scene and can instantly put my finger on it.
It’s why Ursula K. Le Guin said, “One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience.”
At the same time, art reveals the world to us just as well. When we get caught in a dark room of routine, art can open a window to shine light on what we’re missing.
Singer Ben Folds explains this idea with a dream he had when he was three:
“In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. I remember children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something. At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.”
Stand-up comedians are the best at this. We live in the same world as them, but through their eyes, it’s so much funnier. Lucky for us, they share it on stage, so we can go back to our world and laugh at all the funny we never noticed has always been there.
Art unveils hidden worlds like this, showing us the miraculous we never noticed, the suffering we never knew we felt, and the inspiration we didn’t know was inside us.
And it does it all with such a sneakily powerful delivery—like giving a dog its medicine covered in peanut butter.
A few months ago, Spotify recommended me Cleo Sol’s song Young Love. I put it on, and the Soul instrumentals instantly hooked me. Two minutes of eyes-closed head bobbing later, she starts singing:
“You’re in a hurry/Trynna tell the world that you’re worthy/Of all the things we keep chasing…
I know you wanna be someone/You need something more/Cause you’re trynna see yourself/Walk away for more…
You gotta get up out your head/And realize you’ve won/Young love, don’t ever waste your life”
One second I’m vibing out with the music, and the next, I’m realizing I’ve been living life with an unnecessary urgency. In 4 minutes, she got me to reevaluate everything.
“What matters most right now?”
“What will I regret doing when I’m old?”
“Am I spending enough time with the people I love?”
Art’s power comes from using our own emotions to talk to us. It takes feelings we already have and presents them in a format we can understand. So on the surface, I’m just listening to music, but in reality, I’m listening to a dissection of my life.
That’s why Parker Palmer said, “Good poets have a way of sneaking up on me to deliver messages I might have tried to dodge if I’d seen them coming.”
But how does art do all this? How can it notice things we can’t and say what we feel better than us?
It’s because all songs, films, and literature are just someone’s experience with life, and since life is so relatable (we’re all living humans), we see ourselves in the art and find things in the artist’s life we never knew were true about ours.
So art naturally becomes a co-creation between the audience and the artist: someone shares their experience with the world, and I connect it back to mine. Which is where the meaning comes from. The guitar strums and paint strokes can’t do it on their own; art needs the backdrop of the audience’s life experience to mean anything.
Without me, art is meaningless (to me).
Virginia Woolf put it perfectly, saying, “There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Art is a conversation with yourself. If you listen, you can live richer.
What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do. My only wisdom is knowing how to make pots. Who am I to preach?
—Ursula K. Le Guin
As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here. We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.