Why do we enjoy art? Why do we want to make art? I’m not sure if Lynda Barry knows the answers to these questions, but she’s someone who is going to find out.
Her presentation at the National Book Festival on Sept. 22 was hilarious and insightful and it’s really hard to do it justice by writing about it (I think video should be up on the National Book Festival website eventually). Her points where made mostly through anecdotes which were all entertaining. The 45 minutes she was allotted weren’t nearly enough (sadly, there was too much glare on the screen so she abandoned using her slideshow).
She started her talk by saying this was the sort of thing she would’ve made up when she was in the second grade — she gets invited by the Library of Congress to talk to a bunch of people! — and her delight at being in front of this crowd was always clear. She said art was a form of “transportation.” Basically, since she had drawn a picture, she got to be here. And while that’s a really simple way of looking at it, when Barry says it, it’s absolutely true. Art can and does take us places.
She talked a bit about her family life (making jokes about her amazing Filipino grandmother and her Norwegian heritage) before asking the audience to remember their first phone number and say it out loud (I, sadly, do not remember mine). In our minds, our phone numbers are images. This introduced the recurring theme throughout her talk — that we are attracted to and attached to images.
She told a few funny stories about the objects children get attached to, including one friends’ daughter had named Mr. Banana. She joked that when you ask kids if their favorite stuffed toy is “alive,” they know you’re a grownup messing with them. But when you ask if their favorite stuffed toy is dead, it completely changes. Objects have meaning beyond their physical reality.
She then joked about how she never had an imaginary friend as a kid and tried to make one up — an imaginary imaginary friend, but that didn’t quite work. She knew she’d never succeed because she had a friend who had an imaginary friend named Sprinkles that she could only talk to through a fan. Nothing about that was rational, which made it both satisfying and real.
Because of that kind of thing, Barry said she always likes talking to kids. They’re honest and intense in their play. And play is essential to who we are. She basically said adults are crazy because we don’t play enough (that’s something I absolutely agree with).
Probably the most powerful story she told was about research into mirror therapy. People who have phantom pain after having a limb removed often feel better after they see the opposite limb relax in a mirror. The only way to resolve pain is to see it reflected, she said. And that’s what art does. We can hear a song or read a book or see a painting and suddenly feel like we’re understood. It lessens our pain because it’s reflected back at us.
Consuming art is fine, she said, but making art is better. That’s what makes life worth living. It’s not about if it’s “good” or “bad” — it’s about doing it, about expressing something. It’s a good lesson for everyone.
And that reminds me: I’ve done some abstract paintings off and on in the past year. I said to someone that “Oh, they’re not good but I don’t really care.” This person told me “They’re good because you made them.” That seems to be Barry’s point, ultimately. All art is good if you’ve made it. So just go make it.