What Is It?

There is something common to everything we call the arts. What is it? It’s not aesthetics. I’ve seen a squatting guy at a Minnesota ‘Renaissance Faire’ perform Romeo and Juliet using a cigarette butt and a bottle cap for the main characters, and I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet performed by Shakespearean actors in full period costume, and both times this ‘it’ I’m talking about was there. This ancient ‘it’ is something I call ‘an image.’ By image I don’t mean a visual representation, I mean something that is more like a ghost than a picture; something which feels somehow alive, has no fixed meaning and is contained and transported by something that is not alive–a book, a song, a painting–anything we call an ‘art form.’ Images are also contained by certain objects that young children become deeply attached to, like a certain blanket a certain child can’t stand to be without. How is a piece of cloth transformed into something so directly tied to a child’s sense of well-being that if it’s missing, the child can’t sleep? The blanket has come to contain something the child interacts with as if it were alive. How did this ‘it’ come to be located in the blanket? How was it put there? Why do we have an innate ability to have a sustained and interactive relationship with an object/image well before we are able to speak? What kind of interaction is taking place?

— Lynda Barry, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor