So I'm now about halfway through The Swan Thieves and I am definitely at a point where I have to stop discussing plot points - too many potential spoilers. But I can discuss ideas it raises in my own head.
The main character is a psychiatrist, but he is also an artist. Almost all of the characters I've met so far are artists as well. I wonder if Elizabeth Kostova paints, because her characters talk about it with convincing passion. I'm not a visual artist, so there could be inaccuracies that would give her away. But her words about it are wonderful, regardless.
She talks about the smell of paint quite a few times. One character walks into his house after time away and notices the smell of oil paint and mineral spirits. Another character says she loves the way the smell of the paint from art class clings to her hands for the rest of the day. I love this smell, myself. There's something healthy about it. It's an olfactory sign of creation: somewhere nearby, someone is producing art. It's different than knowing that someone is studying, or cleaning, or reading. Something new is coming into existence. That's pretty fantastic.
I'm lucky to be the daughter of an artist and the friend of many artists. The world Elizabeth Kostova describes is therefore not foreign to me, but something I feel like I am a part of. I suppose it's similar to how I feel at home in gay dance clubs in Chicago - I'm not a gay man or a painter, but I'm at home and accepted in their world. And although my drawing talent is pretty average, just good enough to draw cartoons of greyhounds and ferrets, I love visual art. I love color - my impulse is to wear my mother's pastels as eye makeup, not paint with them, but I love their color all the same. (Don't wear them as eye makeup, by the way. I've asked; it's not recommended. Just buy something gaudy from Mac - it will almost satisfy the itch.) This book makes me excited about art, about painting, about creation. It makes me want to shove it in the hands of my friends, artist and non-artist alike, and say "Here! Tell me what you think! About all of it!"
In Shantaram, two characters are discussing how to tell right from wrong. One man says that a way to tell if an action is good or evil is to judge whether it increases the complexity of the universe or not. I don't know if I think that's exactly right, but it's not a bad start, at least, at figuring out the question. Creating art undeniably increases the complexity of the universe. So, to summarize, it's good stuff.
What about really god-awful ugly art? Hmm....