Art as Pressure
Why do human beings create art? What motive guides the sculptor’s hands, the dancer’s feet, the flutist’s heart, the poet’s inner-eye? Given that art is a human universal, it must be a need rather than a want. But do all artists feed the same need? Do they create for the same reason? There are those artists, like Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, who see art as a catalyzing force. Warhol pronounced, “they always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” (Warhol) In a similar prescription, Ginsberg noted, “whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.” (“A Muse Unplugged”) These men saw their art in the larger context of society, the globe, and the sweep of time. In this view, humans make art to leave their mark. Unfortunately, this is not a complete answer. How does one account for Vivian Maier or Emily Dickinson? These artists, for the most part, hid their creations from the world, never motivated to make a mark beyond the page or the frame; yet they created all the same. Therefore, a dichotomy emerges, leaving no simple answer to the question of artistic motivation. Thankfully, this dichotomy can be dualistically represented via language. On one hand, human beings create art to impress; on the other, they do so to express. By juxtaposing the words impress and express, etymology can be used to strip out the core meanings, examine them in detail, and in turn provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the human need to create art.
The core building block of both words is press. Like many English words, press is multifunctional due to a confluence of multiple origins. Press can mean the act of commandeering. This version of the word comes from Old French – prest – by way of Latin – praestāre. Praestāre, meaning to supply, morphed to denote, more specifically, a loan or advanced payment, thereby spawning prest. (Partridge 523) However, this meaning tells little of artistic motivation, unless the art was produced on commission like Picasso’s Guernica, a purchased work of propaganda. (Bragg) Instead, another etymological tributary must be explored. The Latin word premere means, both literally and figuratively, to press, to squeeze – and is closely related to the Latin word for wine-press, prelum. (Partridge, 523) The image of art being squeezed from an artist like juice from a grape reveals a deeper truth than the clerical underpinnings of praestāre. Furthermore, premere is the direct root for the Latin words imprimere and exprimere which became impress and express respectively. (Partridge, 524)
Now the focus must shift to prefixes. The Latin prefix in- becomes im- when preceding the letters b, m, or p. (Oxford University 1376) These prefixes survive unaltered in English as observed in words like impossible, immovable, and imbalance. In those words, im- is clearly a negation. However, im- is not always a negation. In the words impersonate, imbark, and immigrant, the prefix serves a different purpose. Instead of negating the root word, im-, as derived from in-, means in, within, into, or towards. (Partridge 828) It is semantically evident that impress does not mean a lack of squeezing. Therefore, the latter explanation is the one that applies. By merging these constituents, the definition of impress becomes to squeeze into or toward. Such a logical construction based on etymology is historically sound, for that is how it was used in the original Latin; imprimere means to press onto or upon, yielding the past participle impressus which becomes, in English, to impress. (Partridge, 524)
The prefix ex- is a bit easier to unpack. Arriving in English from Greek by way of Latin, ex- precedes vowels, the letter h, and the consonants c, p, q, s, and t. In other arrangements, this prefix may take the form of ef- or ē. (Oxford University 912) Regardless of form, the meaning of ex- is either out of, outside, out from, beyond, or ascending in some vertical movement. (Partridge 827) These definitions are united by a sense of motion directed away from the point of origin. This directional motion is evident in words like exodus, exclude, exhibit, and expatriate. In Latin, premere was forged with ex- to produce exprimere and the past participle expressus, both meaning to press out. This entered Old French as expres, later becoming express in English. (Partridge 524)
The words impress and express each contain an element of force and an element of motion, sounding more like terms of physics than descriptors of artistic motivation. This relationship to physics, however, is clearly visible when viewed through an etymological lens. After all, the same Latin root, pressus, is also responsible for the word pressure. (Partridge 523) Thinking in terms of pressure, an artist like Emily Dickinson was a fountainhead – driven, if not tormented, by a force within her. Poetry, in pragmatic terms, was a relief valve for Dickinson, allowing the pressure that originated within her to safely escape onto the page. Where the artistic juice ended up post-squeeze was not her primary concern. She wrote, “Publication- is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man / Poverty- be justifying / For so foul a thing.” (Dickinson) Despite her disregard for publishing, Dickinson crafted nearly eighteen-hundred poems, most of which she kept neatly packaged away, silent in the shadows. Her artistic motivation clearly came from a need to express rather than impress. Ginsberg, the Beat writer, experienced artistic pressure differently. He was not content to merely write, but needed to perform; he read his poems at public gatherings, first in the United States, and eventually, across the globe. He saw his poetry as having a transformative purpose, stating his intent, “to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness.” (Charters) The force, the pressure, is the same as Dickinson’s, however, the motion is different. Whereas Dickinson needed to simply press the art out, Ginsberg needed to press his art into or upon. His driving force was the need to impress.
The juxtaposition of impression and expression as artistic needs begs the question of qualitative superiority. In other words, is it better to be driven by the need for impression or expression? Any obvious answers would necessarily be subjective since artistic quality is always judged thus. However, it is not a stretch to say that work born from expression is qualitatively different from work constructed for impression. One only needs to imagine Emily Dickinson in the limelight, pressured to live as a literary bon vivant or Allen Ginsberg shuttered away, living as a recluse till death. Few could argue that the nature of their work would not have changed dramatically. Therefore, our etymological distinction cannot predict quality, but it does point out a fundamental truth: the nature of art is inseparably linked to the motive of the artist.
Returning to the original question, why do human beings create art? Etymology reveals that artistic endeavors are, at their core, a matter of pressure. Unfortunately, this tells us nothing about the source of the pressure. Is artistic inspiration a gift from God? Does it come from the crying, incessant, inconsolable voice of the Muse? Is it simply the percolation of the Jungian unconscious? Or is it, cynically speaking, the random firing of neurons traceable all the way to the Big Bang? The answer to any one of those questions would be profound, paradigm shifting, and more than sufficient to establish a causal link for the creation of art. Alas, etymology cannot take us there. Yet the study of words does illuminate an artist’s motive by giving pressure a direction. In the case of expression, the artist is both subject and object. They need to squeeze their essence out, beyond – up, up, and away – for purely esoteric reasons, lest the pressure cause a rupture, driving them to madness or sorrow. In the case of impression, the artist is the subject, but not the object. The object, which they hope to impress upon, is external and targeted. Pressure drives their art into the public with hope of making a mark. Though there may be other reasons why human beings create art, the need to express and to impress are at least two of them. And they are an important two, for many an artist has found it difficult to wrestle with this dichotomy, to find their own direction, to act out a mode of being that adequately channels their artistic pressure. So, artists must ask themselves whether they create art because of their deep-seated, God-given need for expression, or their wishful, social, life-affirming need to leave an impression. Then again, the answer may be neither, leaving the door open to further etymological and philosophical inquiry, a linguistic searching of the soul.
“A Muse Unplugged.” The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/08/opinion/08mon4.html
Bragg, Melvyn. “Picasso’s Guernica.” Audio blog post. In Our Time: Culture. 2 November 2017.
Charters, Ann. “Allen Ginsberg’s Life.” Modern American Poetry, http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/ginsberg/life.htm. Accessed 23 November 2017.
Dickinson, Emily. “Publication is the Auction.” Poem Analysis, https://poemanalysis.com/publication-is-the-auction-by-emily-dickinson-poem-analysis/. Accessed on 21 November 2017.
Partridge, Eric. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House, 1983.
Oxford University. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Glasgow: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Warhol, Andy. “Quotes.” Good Reads, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6520082-they-say-that-time-changes-things-but-you-actually-have. Accessed on 21 November 2017.