I’ll know it when I see it

Defining art is like the famous definition of pornography: I’ll know it when I see it.

But while so many things ARE art, why are some products – painting, music, photography, etc. – better than others? Why do we still enjoy Mozart, Shakespeare, Woolf, but not others?

There is a huge difference between good and great, but I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly. This was amply illustrated at the Swell Season concert last Sunday night (the band is the duo from the movie Once). The opening act, we’ll call him Mark, was an Irish singer/songwriter, as is the lead singer of Swell Season.

His lyrics were good, if a bit clichéd, his voice was fine, his guitar work and stage presence perfectly presentable. You could tell he enjoyed his music and enjoyed performing. But all added up, he wasn’t great. The crowd was appreciative but never really quieted down.

Until the Swell Season took the stage. Not a sound among the thousands of us crowded together in the House of Blues.

Glen Hansard, the lead singer, doesn’t look like a rock idol. He is shaggy and sweaty, looking like he could use a shower and a haircut. What really sets him apart is that he’s always smiling. He exudes limitless joy and wants to share it with his audience.

His music is truly divine.

The lyrics are inspired. The music is original. Glen’s voice is hoarse as he sings with every drop of soul he has. Passion oozes from his body. All together, this music is transcendental.


The two men sing about many of the same themes – Ireland, love, heartbreak. And yet the results are so different.

The same is true for writing and all other arts. We know there are no new stories to tell. It’s in the telling that they become new.

I know I am a good writer. What I strive to be is transcendental.

P.S. Do yourself a favor and listen to just this one song by Glen. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. (FYI, he plays this song during concerts without any amp or mic. Incredible).

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