Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thoughts on a living art--

I'm reading Book XIII of Augustine's Confessions for a class tomorrow, and finding certain interesting correspondences between creation and the sub-creation that is art. Creation happens and subsists from the creator's abundance and fountaining-forth of light and goodness; so exuberance and abundance in the artist leads to living art.

A work must be alive not to vanish in the press of time--not to vanish almost immediately. It may be overlooked when new, yet still live and eventually make itself known. But something living must be snared in its bottle of words. To us, it often appears quite hard to detect what contemporary work has life in it, and what does not. But for sickle-handed Time, this work is easy.

Times alter. Realists may throw off the weight of Romanticism, or a group of artists flower in the sun of new ideas and common aspiration. An obsession with chasing the new in form may lead to diminishing returns, dwindled matter, and lifelessness. Artists may see the new glimmering in front of them because of some radical change in the conception of the universe (Earth orbits the Sun! Infinite universes may exist!), or because of something quite different--the constraints to free speech imposed by tyranny, say. Often the new opposes the just past. Sometimes to get to the new, artists must bushwhack back through the tradition.

Because there is no such thing as progress in the arts, even though no work can avoid being of its time.

Look at a circa 20,000-25,000 B. C. figurine like the so-called "Venus" of Dolní Věstonice, now on loan to the British Museum's "Ice Age" exhibition. It has a curiously Modernist look, its sexual features exaggerated and the whole body sleek and simplified.

Instead of progress in the arts, there is a continuous fountaining-forth of new work. Some of this work will manage to retain a sense of abundance and light, even as time passes. Some will not. But the artist's seeking is, in itself, a thing that partakes of light and participates in abundance.

2 comments:

  1. A thoughtful essay, Marly!

    "Because there is no such thing as progress in the arts, even though no work can avoid being of its time." Yes, it is said that everything has been done or said before. We might use newer technologies than artists of long ago but our concerns are still the same.

    I dearly wish I could see that Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum, but I must settle with revisiting the website. Picasso and others were quite influenced by ancient art, and we still are today (including yours truly as you know).

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  2. I wish that I could see the exhibition, but even more than that I wish you could! It's so right down your alley...

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.