Let’s start with Shakespeare, shall we?
Hamlet is directing a play. He instructs the actors “to hold, as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” All the while he has his mother Gertrude in mind. The play is for her, to expose her to her own guilt. A mirror, so that she can see herself as she truly is. To peel away Gertrude’s self-deception and reveal the truth.
Bertolt Brecht took issue with the Bard’s characterization of art. “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer to shape it,” he wrote. Shakespeare’s mirror can only reflect a fixed reality. For Brecht, reality is the fiction. Art cannot be a mirror because there is nothing truly there to reflect. Hamlet can’t show Gertrude the protrait of herself as she truly is because that portrait is always being created anew. All he can show her is a vision of her complicity in her husband’s death that is persuasive enough to become her new reality. The play is not a mirror, but a weapon.
Of course, you can’t blame Shakespeare for thinking reality a more stable foundation than it is: his was an era of burgeoning empricism, before the scientific method’s offspring of the twentieth century revealed the uncertainty at its center.
But Brecht’s metaphor leaves something to be desired as well. A hammer is a crude tool, blunt and violent. Art may indeed shape reality, but does it leave such massive dents in it, or is its working more subtle, more imperceptible? Hammers, mirrors, they are both tools to be applied to the natural world, existing in separation from it. Is there a more organic way to think of art?
For much of human history, people thought of the gut as the center of their emotional experience. It sounds unpleasant and comical to modern ears: “I love you from the depth of my bowels.”
But the more I think about the stomach, the gut, the whole digestive tract, the more I think we should bring it back into use as a metaphor. What do we do when we tell a story, but digest our experiences and observations, the books we've read, the songs we've heard and sung, the decades of conversations and arguments and stolen moments of quiet turned to isolation and loneliness and longing, and turn them into something else?
Shit, you might say. Shit is the product of digestion. But no: shit is just the byproduct of digestion (There's a metaphor in that, too. Shit fertilizes.) No, the product of digestion is life.
And life, whether plant or animal, is life-giving. The art that is born of a digestive imagination differs from the hammer and the mirror in that is not outside of the process of living, but within it, an inseparable and essential part of it. It exists in turn to be digested, deep in the gut of anyone who encounters it, to feed the mind and soul and ... gut. It is art that nourishes.
Yes, that’s a metaphor that can serve: art as food, art as nourishment, art as life. Art not as a tool to reflect or shape reality, but as an inherent and organic part of reality, the product of being alive and human, as essential to our sustenance as air and water, as richly varied and enjoyable as a good meal, and like a good meal, often best partaken of in community with others.
Art that comes from the gut.