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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why the People Disliked Art, Circa 2005: dead ends and ways forward

Michael Miller, Sphinx, July 2006,
Μουσείο Ακρόπολης / Acropolis Museum
Here is a poem first published in Electric Velocipede and included in my new book, The Throne of Psyche (Mercer University Press, 2005.)  Before I wrote this poem, I was thinking about how most people simply can't read a great deal of art criticism any more--such prose being another unintended victim of Modernism and its heirs. If you're not "in the club," much of contemporary art criticism will not make a great deal of sense to a casual or serious reader and is a kind of "lunacy." (That idea is a source for the recent book, The Rape of the Masters, an enlightening and painfully amusing read.) And yet I was rather fond of reading art books as a child and teen: and shouldn't an art book be open to a bright young person? It's sad to think that what should be an "open book" would now be a closed one.

The poem makes a turn from the abstract art-criticism epigraphs toward what is terribly real and toward what matters, and in doing so leaps straight for the classical world, the tragedy of Oedipus (who was both seed and unwitting seeder in his mother's womb), and one of the oldest, hoariest, most meaningful, and most forbidden rhymes in English letters, womb / tomb. It rejects something contemporary and flawed in order to dive back through the tradition for renewal: in my mind, the only way to move forward into the future.

Michael Miller, Sphinx
from the Acropolis Museum, July 2006
Why People Disliked Art, Circa 2005 

. . . invents puzzles out of non sequiturs to seek congruence
in seemingly incongruous situation, whether visual or spatial . . .
inhabits those insterstitial spaces between understanding
and confusion.
      --Trinie Dalton

       . . . the rumblings of a new movement to bring those shifts
into earshot, diagramming their overlap as a corporeal sphere
of listening . . . an oft-referenced vertex in sound art’s expanding scaffold.

       –Lucy Raven

Another way of accounting for this overall emptiness or lack
that the painting bespeaks is that the Female Child enclosedwithin this geometric or ideological box is also trapped in an ideological box: the lack of the father’s E, his penis.
     –David Lubin

Can you compare this lunacy
To an ordinary thing?
Imagine, say, an animal
That pads into a ring
Of bones to sleep. A bit afraid,
You think to creep on by,
Not wishing to arouse a beast
And meet a lustrous eye
Or hear a crinkle of the wings
Or tightening of thighs—
This is a spot of mystery,
This is the Vale of Sighs
Not far from Thebes. If you’re a man,
You’ll have pictured the breasts
And dreamed the passion of a kiss.
The Sphinx’s face arrests
All who pass near. The Theban gods
May make you glad or vex
Your life with trial: you are bones
Or Oedipus, the Rex.
And all this means so much to you;
It mattered from the start
If that chorus of olive trees
Were accident or art,
Whether your flesh and seed would root
Inside your mother’s womb,
If you were born to kill your dad,
Blood crying from the tomb.

The Throne of Psyche
Mercer University Press, 2011, 106 pages
Hardcover jacket and paperback cover
from "Touched" by Clive Hicks-Jenkins


  1. Gosh!
    You touch upon a huge subject here, Marly!

    I often see greater creativity in the response to some art than is in the art itself. Something that amuses me : )

  2. Well, it worked for Shakespeare, who was always standing on some old works of art in order to climb higher!

    But I guess it's a little odd to respond not to art but art criticism...

  3. Isn't that what 'fine art' is? Building upon what as come before and introducing new ways of expression en route?
    To me that is Fine Art, mostly.
    Reinventing the wheel is for ambitious wheelsmiths : )

  4. Mm, yes! That last line is highly quotable!

  5. LIke the poem, Marly! And the art, but who is Michael Miller? As for art criticism - that was my most disliked course in art school and I still rarely care for it, especially the 'artspeak'.

  6. marja-leena,

    That's Mike, my husband. Because we had three children at home, it was often hard for the two of us to go on a trip, and the good journeys often went to a child. He and our eldest son, then 16, went to Turkey for a conference and then rambled around Turkey and Greece. Hence the pictures.

  7. P. S. I do occasionally read a book of Yeats criticism, though it tends to be older books. Right now I'm reading The Golden Nightingale by Donald Stauffer, published in 1949. He has an old-fashioned, interesting mandate, centered around some questions that address Yeats and poetry in general: what kind of ideas are best expressed in poetry; what's the nature and extent of our belief n such ideas; what's the manner of poetic expression; how are ideas and beliefs embodied in a poem; what's the nature of a lyric poem; how can a lyric reach greatness; and what is the good of poetry.

    That's the sort of book a Princeton professor could write, way back in the 1940's.

  8. What captures me most is the simpering expression on this sphynx. It is not at all what I'd expect, which would be a fierce and icy stare, not a smile. Perhaps she's reflecting on the number of mortals she's been able to consume, or thinking, at the last, that the joke was finally on her?

  9. Robbi,

    It's the famous "archaic smile." Really keeps you guessing...

  10. Robbi,

    It's the famous "archaic smile." Really keeps you guessing...


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.