a journal of observations, obsessions and inspirations

musings on the artist's life

Posted in: Writing

Questioning art, words and form

How do words become art? When does a story turn into literature? Can we view a checklist of the qualifications and figure it out? This is literature, this is not, this might be… I’m not sure how I would begin to define, let alone get a whole bunch of people to agree on, the parameters. What if we started with a simpler question, something like What is art? A painter named Avigdor Arikha believes that a piece of art, “if it is a piece of art, is not made in order to astonish or impress. It is made in order to move. If it doesn’t move, it’s not art.”

Simple enough, and since each viewer’s response is likely to be different, it allows for self-definition, in much the same way as does the reader-response theory of criticism. Thus, a novel, a poem, a play, or a story can move us just as much as visual art can and does, and is therefore, perhaps properly, called art.

Or a complete waste of time, following Theodore Sturgeon’s second adage that “ninety  percent of everything is crud.”  (His first adage is almost better: “Nothing is always absolutely so.”) We’ve all read books or gone to a movie and at the end, wondered why we stuck with it. What were we thinking? The nourishment my soul received from Eyes Wide Shut or Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is surpassed (and not in a good way) only by the nutritional value of Wonder Bread.

We participate in art—looking, listening, reading—for the way it feeds us, for the delight it brings. We may also wish to be edified on an intellectual level, but we’re more interested in the feelings art generates in us, ranging from high arousal to deep relaxation.

Why should humans be designed to create and appreciate beauty? Why enjoy it with such intensity? Perhaps we are hard-wired for art, for surely it didn’t evolve in Mr and Mrs Cro-Magnon because it helped them outrun sabre-toothed tigers. Our ability to be moved by art is rewarded on a neurochemical level with pleasure that is “fifty times stronger than heroin, for which in turn human beings will happily neglect the delights of sex and eating,” Frederick Turner tells us. Powerful stuff. “What activity can be so much more important than nourishment and reproduction?”

Apparently, that would be art. Perhaps we’ll explore the “artist’s high” as part of the creative process, but another time. So if we can’t check off near-tangible factors that make writing literature, is the wild card then the writer? Is it the author’s skill, vision, hand and heart that give us the distinction between a mystery thriller and a novel that gets named literature?

I think the artist is the individual that keeps us from becoming too complacent with things as they are. The artist is the one who constantly holds out in front of us the vision that things might be different.

— Stephen E. Weil, former director of The Hirshorn Museum

Artists and writers as interpreters of the human condition. Perhaps the artist translates “the whole world” in ways that give us access to our human thoughts and feelings of desire, rage, tenderness—all of it. When the writer has plenty of space and time (as in a novel) to explore inner thoughts and gradually, subtly reel in the reader with the luxury of endless pages and all those extra words as part of the character debate/dance, then that artist can tap into our collectively human psyche, tug at our hearts and minds, and land with both feet on our sensual pathways to make us think and feel.

Many of my favorite writers tap into the senses. I’ll just pick Don DeLillo’s White Noise for one because he chooses words to create pictures that are real, almost hyper-real. I know these people. I could pick them out of a police lineup. Their conversation is real. I can see the colors in the strange light of the supermarket and the texture of Murray’s clothing and the softness of Baba’s skin. Most of all, I can hear. I can hear the melancholy wails of the emergency sirens, Wilder’s seven-hour crying jag, Howard Dunlop’s language lessons:

When he switched from English to German, it was as though a cord had been twisted in his larynx area. An abrupt emotion entered his voice, a scrape and gargle sounded like the stirring of some beast’s ambition. He gaped at me and gestured, he croaked, he verged on strangulation. Sounds came spewing from the base of his tongue, harsh noises damp with passion. He was only demonstrating certain basic pronunciation patterns but the transformation in his face and voice made me think he was making a passage between levels of being.

Yes, I’ve known misfit professors like this, and I know a little about German, and I can hear it. Even if I didn’t know German, I think I might, from this passage.

Is a determining factor in how we experience art—and the definition of literature— based on all this sensual-imagery content? It’s just in the writer’s choice of words, their arrangement, their rhythm and juxtaposition, isn’t it? Will their absence detract or change (as in ruin) the purpose of art? And would that make erotic novels “literature” or are they just collections of body-based words and shrieks and moans? Some of that genre is good writing, but is it literature? Is it art?

Does any of this matter?

More to the point, why is this important to us, other than reveling in the thought process and play of words?

Master word-player and long-time art critic for Time magazine, Robert Hughes—never shy about expressing his opinion—may give us an answer. Love him or hate him, his writing about art and artists and life is always on a higher plane, and often is art in itself. At the end of his television series The Shock of the New, he said:

And the basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness—not through arguments but through feeling—and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way, to pass from feeling to meaning.

For me, doesn’t get much better than that. Play the video for the full quote in context.

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