The Most Fundamental Thing in Any Work of Art
  • “There is no work of art without a subject,” said Ortega — and with him here I do not demur.

    Subject-matter isn’t the only component of art — nor is it the most complicated — but it is the most fundamental.

    It is the component toward which all others are geared.

    This is true in any medium, any language, any form.

    Subject is what the artist presents. It is the ends. All other attributes are the means.

    In the following sketch, for example, the subject-matter is the human eye:

    The paper, the medium, the artist’s style, and so on — these are the means by which the artist has presented her subject.

    Because art is selective and because the artist is the selector, an artist’s choice of subject-matter discloses precisely what that artist regards as relevant in human life.

    The same is of course true of writers and the art of writing.

    What does a writer write about?

    That is the most fundamental question a reader can ask — and answering it will tell you exactly what any given writer regards as existentially important.

    A writer might, for instance, choose for a subject love, or war, or injustice.

    Or a writer might choose horror.

    Or crime.

    Or religion.

    Or any one of a number of other things.

    The point isn’t in the specific. The point is that it’s the subject in collaboration with the theme that projects what the artist believes the human place in the universe to be.

    And the drive to present this is, I say, the driving force behind all art.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

6 Responses and Counting...

  • Dave Zoby 09.23.2014

    Please Ray,

    You’re telling me about art? Where do you get off? It’s not nearly as simple as you make it sound. For example, isn’t it quite possible that two people could read, say, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and have two different ideas about the theme, two at least?That novel hurt to read it was so beautiful. It was like being stunned, head-shot by an errant baseball. It was about life slipping away–theme–or was it about love? What exactly, Ray, was the subject? You tell me.Theme and subject are fuzzy at best; I don’t care how many pictures of eyes and feet you post. Let’s take your favorite poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by what’s his name. Are you going to tell me the theme? The subject? You can’t, so don’t try to act as if this is all so simple.

    I was very irritated by this post–not to mention the ridiculous hyper links that sent me off to the far corners of the web. I wanted to jump in my worktruck and drive to your town, find you in a pretentious coffee shop and kick you in the stones. Only ethics–the worktruck belongs to the company, not me–prevented me from doing so. That, and from the looks of you lately, you’ve apparently been lifting enough weights to make you chimp-strong. And also diesel is like 4 bucks per.

    You guys from Bayfield always try to make complicated things like truth, beauty and art seem so simple. I grew up just across the water from you, across the shipping lanes in the misnamed and always neglected Waterford. You’ll recall that we had the albacore plant that made pet food and cans and cans of a tuna so oily it had to be shipped overseas. When the weather was clear, through breaks of fog, I could see Bayfield, it’s sloped roads, its waterfront bistros, even the football stadium.

    Anyways, Bayfield was a dream to us. I often looked across and wondered who lived there. I thought about your art galleries, your indoor pools. We always said, if you were going to get arrested, do it in Bayfield, the prison there was state-of-the-art. My brother and I were once fishing on the public pier, and the wind was just right. We could hear the tinny notes of jazz drifting across the water, amplified, cashing and dying in the chop of seine netters. Yeah, you guys always had it made.

    And now, some 30 years later, you resurface and want to lecture me about art?

  • Sorry it’s taken me this long to answer your chickenshit comment, old boy. It was so boring that I couldn’t read it all in one sitting.

    The subject of Sons and Lovers is, as its title implies, love.

    Theme is the core meaning that the events of a story add up to.

    Subject is what the story is about.

    To take a superficial example that even you might be able to comprehend: Rocky is about boxing. Its theme is the triumph of the human will to win.

    Subject and theme are not mutually exclusive. They’re interrelated. They go together like white wine and fish.

    All components of a story are interrelated. The can be isolated and dissected for purposes of study, but in a good work of art, they are symbiotic and indivisible.

    The “Red Wheel Barrow” sucks. You may quote me wildly on that.

    Dave Zoby wrote:

    “That novel hurt to read it was so beautiful.”

    I almost agree. I’d say it this way:

    That novel hurt to read.

    Dave Zoby wrote:

    It was like being stunned, head-shot by an errant baseball

    Ha-ha! You finally said something funny, motherfucker. That constitutes a sense of humor.

    Dave Zoby wrote:

    I was very irritated by this post–not to mention the ridiculous hyper links that sent me off to the far corners of the web.

    Cry me a river, bitch. At least I didn’t send you here.

    Or here.

  • Amen Ray. Is this the same guy always asking for tropical drinks? Maybe you should just do it and get it over with. Obviously he has a lot of time on his hands. Keep up the good work. Love the bar videos.

  • Thank you, Jill! Don’t worry about Dave Zoby. He’s a pussy-

    It’s good to see you. Thank you for dropping by.

  • Ray,

    You ARE the sawed off shotgun of literary pulp, or sawedoffshotgunoflterarypulp as you would have it. You blast your way through nuance.

    If Rocky is about boxing, then Moby Dick is about whales, and Catcher in the Rye is about graffiti. The subject of Rocky is a dimwitted woman who works in a pet store. Adrian meets a retarded debt collector and they fall in love. The theme: a nobody becomes a somebody. My point is, Ray, people can have different ideas about art and literature. It’s not fixed, like a drink recipe, a martini for example that requires a dash of dry vermouth an exactly three swollen and embalmed olives.

    My life-long gripe with you, a disagreement in tastes that gives me much pleasure, is how you simplify everything to fit your small world. (Jill–see above–seems to have the same issue.) Autodidacts have that problem. I don’t fault you for it. Actually, I love you all the more when I see you splayed out, flaws and all. I love helping you understand that a shotgun is not a precise tool for understanding your fellow man.

    PS–I ordered Driftless Area and it better be good. That last book you recommended–Nights in Rodanthe–absolutely sucked and I almost drove to the cute little coffee shop where you hang out to kick you in the eggs. Instead, I took the novel to the landfill and tossed into the swirl and seagulls and plastic bags. I went to the wharf and handed it to an illiterate Portugese fisherman. Or I rolled it up and stuffed it through a glory-hole in a public restroom near Avalon Beach. You’ll never know exactly what I did with it, will you?

  • Dave,

    I have some suggestions for what you can do with your rolled up copy of Nights in Rodanthe. But you’d have to put down your pineapple drink first.


Leave a Reply

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required