Jie-Song Zhang: What is Art?

October 14, 2015

Jie-Song Zhang: What is Art?

What is art?

If we take music, and peel away its skin, tearing away the notes and harmonies, and we reach for its inner flesh, what is it that we find? When we look upon a painting and move inward into its body of oil, sinking into that thick pond of color and mood - that moisture that we feel, what is it? When we observe dance, behind those precise muscular brushstrokes made of arching arms, bending legs, and turning torsos, what is it that truly moves?

What is art?

I believe a very meaningful way to explain our experience as human beings is to describe it as movement. A system of movement. The movement of our lives in reaction to the motion of time. Our physical movement across the landscapes of the earth. Our mental movement across the landscapes of information that we encounter each day. And then, there is the movement of the human spirit, swimming through this space, this ocean with no ceiling and no floor that surrounds us and extends in all directions with no end...

In these domains of movement - physical, mental, spiritual - human beings are seeking to move away from suffering and suffocation, and towards fulfillment, elevation, radiance.

And if I were asked to explain human rights in my own understanding, I would describe a violation of our human rights as that which constricts our ability to move, constricts our mobility - our physical mobility, our mental mobility, our spiritual mobility: when human beings are made unable to move away from suffering and suffocation, and equally importantly, when we are made unable to move towards fulfillment and elevation.

I choose this understanding, because it shows human rights as not simply a matter of identifying and condemning visible atrocities, but that human rights is in fact a greater conversation, one that asks: what is it that we truly deserve, as human beings? What is our greatest state of fulfillment, of elevation? And how far are we, as a society, from providing this to the people of the world.

What is art?

Art is a language that allows us to explore and to express the range of motion of the human spirit. Because of this, art is one of the greatest pieces of evidence we have that we are much more than flesh and bone. Art shows that, while our physical bodies are bound to the gravity of this planet, the human spirit is able to ascend towards the sun to press fingertips upon its face, to tiptoe across clouds, to stand at the shoulder of the heavens and contemplate the significance of the stars to human beings, and the significance of human beings to the stars.

Art testifies as to our potential: what we are capable of feeling, what we are capable of being, at full liberation, the great gates of the chest flung open, the radius of our wings at full extension.

And it is this quality of freedom, this purity of liberation, that we are not only capable of knowing - but that we deserve. So it is not simply the shackling of our wrists and ankles that constricts our mobility as human beings, it is not simply the closing of our books that constricts our mobility as human beings… but when we take human children, who intuitively experience the world in a full spectrum of color, and we place them into black and white classrooms that bleed them of their nature, so that we can produce "workers" - this is a constriction of our human mobility. When we take a society, and the people who live in this society, and make it such that for these human beings, their most meaningful feelings are provided to them through the purchase and collection of material objects that they do not need - this is a constriction of our human mobility.

If I told you that human beings were creatures capable of flight, and that our wings were to be bound, you would all agree that this would constitute a violation of our natural rights as human beings. It is here, in this conversation, this contemplation - this questioning as to what it is that we truly are, what it is that we are truly capable of, and what it is that we truly deserve, as human beings - it is here, that I believe the work of human rights begins.

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