What is an artist? What is his or her role in society? According to the 1994 edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an artist is “one who practices an art.” And what is art? Art is “the use of skill and imagination in the production of things of beauty [or the] works so produced.”
Unfortunately, this definition is less than useful. First, as pointed out by Greek philosopher Socrates thousand of years ago, beauty cannot be accurately defined. Second, most contemporary artists would disagree with the definition. In the last century, numerous movements such as pop art, body art, and cubism have been rejecting the notion of art as beauty. Does this mean I should start using another dictionary? I probably should, but it may not prove useful in defining the role of the artist. The definition of art and the role of the artist are notions that have been discussed and debated for centuries.
Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, and Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes each portray the life of a writer trying to find his or her place in the world: in Lady Oracle, Joan, a newly discovered poet and secret author of gothic romances, is struggling between reality and fantasy; in The Diviners, Morag, an introverted writer, longs for love and acceptance; and in Two Solitudes, Paul, a young Canadian artist, carries both his country’s French and English heritage. All three novels define the artist as a person devoted to the expression and depiction of his or her culture.
Lady Oracle features characters who are constantly seeking refuge from their true selves: Arthur, a lazy, spineless man, has megalomaniacal delusions of revolution; and Chuck takes on the exuberant persona of the Royal Porcupine. For them, role-playing is a matter of survival. Joan is no exception to this. Throughout the novel, she oscillates between reality and fantasy, often confusing her own biography with her gothic fiction. She is in constant inner conflict, struggling to feel like she is part of a greater whole while trying to retain a sense of control over her life: “Being left out altogether was too much for me. I capitulated, but I paid for it.”
Though she fantasizes about ideal love, what Joan truly craves is to feel needed and for her own needs to be recognized. However, the countless rejections she’s suffered during her childhood have caused her to use her “outsider” status as a means to protect herself against the world: “By this time I was eating steadily, doggedly, stubbornly, anything I could get. The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest; the disputed territory was my body.” In order to maintain her autonomy, she sacrifices her chances to fit in: “I wasn’t going to let myself be diminished, neutralized. I wouldn’t ever let her make me over in her image, thin and beautiful.”
Joan’s cruel exile to the margins of society allows her to develop a keen eye for suffering and a strong sense of empathy. It is then that she becomes a writer of gothic romances, that she takes her first steps as an artist: “when they were too tired to invent escapes of their own, mine were available at the corner drugstore, neatly packaged like the other pain killers”; “The truth was that I dealt in hope, I offered a vision of a better world.”
Seeking and creating gateways to various worlds of fantasy, Joan becomes intrigued with the possibilities language offers. Consoling others is no longer enough. She engages in automatic writing, surrendering completely to the repressed, irrational side of her dual personality, and writes her first critically acclaimed book: “these words would sort of be given to me. I mean I’d find them written down, without having done it myself, if you know what I mean.” Only then does Joan become an official writer, an official artist, exposing the voice of our hidden sensual nature without censorship from our rational side.