DAY 58 - HOW TO BE AN ARTIST / by Debra Matlock

Lesson 15: Understand That Art Is Not Just for Looking At

Art does something.

Navajo sand paintings are also pleas to the gods. Photo: Geoffrey Clements/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In the past 100 years or so, art has been reduced to being mainly something we look at in clean, white, well-lit art galleries and museums. Art has been limited this way, made a passive thing: another tourist attraction to see, take a picture in front of, and move on from.

But for almost its entire history, art has been a verb, something that does things to or for you, that makes things happen. Holy relics in churches all over the world are said to heal. Art has been carried into war; made to protect us, curse a neighbor, kill someone; been an aid in getting pregnant or preventing pregnancy. There are huge, beautiful, multicolored, intricately structured Navajo sand paintings used in ceremonies to ask the gods for assistance. The eyes painted on Egyptian sarcophagi are not there for us to see; they are there so the interred person can watch. The paintings inside the tombs were meant to be seen only by beings in the afterlife.

Have you ever cried in front of a work of art? Write down six things about it that made you cry. Tack the list to your studio wall. Those are magical abracadabras for you.


I don’t think I’ve actually cried in front of a painting. I’ve have to think about that one…I have cried in films (which can be art on occasion.) The times that count for me are the times that don’t make sense, anyone can cry at something sad but these are more unexplainable moments.

The first of these happened in CHICAGO, during one of the dance numbers, I started to get choked up. Now, I don’t love musicals, or dancing even. So it was kind of baffling. I think it was just the sheer awesomeness of it. The lights and the way it was shot. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger at the top of their game. But then it happened again in Wonder Woman, first when they’re on island fighting each other, then the soldiers, and then of course the “No Man’s Land” scene. That scene was easy, it was like a visualization of what it’s like to be a woman: constantly being under attack, going in anyway and weathering the barrage, mostly in service of others. That scene makes me tear up, even now as I think of it. A lot of it has to do with representation. We so rarely see women being strong and heroic that it takes us by surprise.