17 September 2014


I have this highly scientific, intellectual term for things that move me: they've got punch. No, not the magenta-coloured fruit drink that comes in cans of frozen concentrate. Or the equivalent, somewhat higher-class version mixed with rum that Mary Poppins takes from her medicine spoon (roll those rrrr's: "Rrrrum Punch!"), although the latter probably would have the kind of punch I'm talking about. I mean the kind of punch that socks you in the solar plexus, knocks out your breath for just a moment. In a good way, of course.

I don't know if anyone else uses that term, so I'm not sure if when I say something has punch, people actually understand me. The thing is that I haven't found any better term for that quality. I first came up with it when I was looking at art - actually, it might well have been my own. I've pulled off a few pieces that I liked, and when I tried to describe to myself why, I realised it was because they had that quality, had punch. Not too many, mind you - but a few. It's one of the most satisfying things when I create a piece with punch. I haven't painted or sculpted much lately (funny how grad school takes over your life and sucks out all your creative juices), but I'm sure if I spent a lot of time working on my art, the number of punch-y pieces would eventually increase quite a bit. See, that's what sets apart "real" artists from the dilettantes - real artists have work with punch. And the better they get, the more regular the punch.

Punch is not just found in visual arts, but also in something like this piece of writing by my friend Christopher Bunn, where he talks about joy in spite of difficulties. It's in poems that just knock you flat, because they say it so very precisely - whatever "it" is. It's in a musical composition that moves you to tears even if you don't know why.

So, if you ever show me a piece of art or writing or music you did, and I tell you it's got punch, know that you've been given one of the highest compliments I can bestow. Something with punch is more than just beautiful or skillfully executed, it's got content that moves me. Thankfully, it's not a very rare quality, I've seen it many times. It's not cheap; it does take skill, but more than that, it takes investment on the part of the artist or writer. In fact, perhaps it is that which comes through, the person of the creator, which reaches out and touches something in me.

Punch is hard to explain, which is also why I have yet to find a better, more sophisticated word to replace it. It's a quality I know when I see it, but I cannot tell you (or even myself) ahead of time how to achieve it. At least not yet. Maybe consistent punch comes with experience.

Life, the Universe, and Pieces with Punch. I know it when I see it.

Van Gogh: punchiest painter ever

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