So what's the difference between a work being about something as a theme, and a work merely containing something as an ingredient? You've heard me bash on this a good deal, so I thought I'd unpack it a little further.
Most artists are not terribly original thinkers, or even terribly profound ones for that matter. It's not in their job description — or, maybe better to say, they believe they do the job of thinker just fine enough to suit their purpose, which is to bring us something new and original and exciting. A new story, usually, but just as often something current wrapped in a familiar story (or is it the other way 'round?). The ideas themselves are just the green onion sprinkled on top of that particular ramen bowl. In other words, they take the ideas just seriously enough to merit inclusion in a work or to instigate the work, but they don't always make the work about the idea.
Perhaps what's not required is being a thinker —maybe that's a little top-heavy a word to use — but simply being aware of the fact that ideas are present in one's work and that one has to do justice to their presence. That's something many artists do, but again, how they go about doing it and in what realm is what matters most.
Sme examples. Dostoevsky was not the most original thinker, but he took seriously every idea he encountered in his stories, and he was able to bring them to life through his characters better than almost any other writer I've yet to encounter. George Orwell was brilliant when it came to political thought, in big part because his lack of sentimentality for the subject was near-total. He was slightly less unsentimental when it came to aesthetics — especially the aesthetics of his own politics, which saddled him with awkwardly sentimental ideas about what England "really" was or what it was "really" meant to be.
And Yukio Mishima was an embarrassingly reactionary thinker — in fact, not much of a thinker at all — but he was so good at producing the illusion of profundity in his work that it often passed for the real thing. It's hard not to read the first half of The Sea of Fertility and not feel like great things are afoot, but then you get into the second half and realize the whole thing was sleight-of-hand. I look at people like Orson Scott Card and I think of him: the folks who had and maybe still do have great talent, but have such outlandish, unsupportable worldviews that everything they produce comes out with the dirt of their extremism smeared on its face.
The few artists who are both great artists and original thinkers are extraordinarily rare, in big part because the thought often comes at the expense of the art, or because the art is an insufficient embodiment for the thought. Joyce became more interested in what he could do with the language than what sort of story or human connection he could create with it — and in the end, accomplished far less because he self-selected for intellectual appeal over everything else. Stanley Kubrick's brilliant stylization became paired to a worldview that made even the most hot-blooded topics cold-blooded, whether or not they were best suited to that kind of piercing gaze in the first place.
Most art doesn't start as an intellectual experience — okay, maybe Stockhausen — which is why most artists don't let themselves get too intellectual about their work. They don't feel they can afford to, lest they end up with something that has all the zest of chewing straw. (They're right.)
But I'm not suggesting they do this so that they create nothing but abstractions that require a decoder ring to understand, let alone appreciate. It's for the sake of being able to look at what they've done, once it's done, and see what was truly behind it and why. The ones who are capable of that, we call geniuses; maybe to themselves, they're just thinking as hard as they can about how to get it less wrong.
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