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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The nautilus and the laurel leaf

Photo of a gate, Arboretum, Asheville, NC
I was feeling rather sad, reading an account by one of those unfortunate persons removed from planes on the tenth anniversary of 9-11—sad for what we have come to, and also sad to skim the comments and see much good will but also a certain amount of lovelessness and squabbling between people of different nations and races. To love one another seems the hardest commandment in the world…

And then I read an article from imprint about how many young writers no longer read or see a reason to do so, along with speculations as to why. I have my own ideas as to that, but I find them all rather depressing.

I was pondering how this is what it means to grow older in the postmodern landscape: to see things change until the world no longer seems your own any longer.

And then, just when I was feeling a bit despairing around the edges, I remembered Eliot saying that someone who dedicates his life to writing “may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.” And that’s quite a downer, no? I rooted about and then read a Paris Review interview where an older Eliot talked about that quote. The interviewer asks a question about it: “Seventeen years ago you said, ‘No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.’ Do you feel the same now, at seventy?” And Eliot replies, ‘There may be honest poets who do feel sure. I don't.”

Well, right off I felt a great relief not to be an old T. S. Eliot or even a young T. S. Eliot and working in a bank and marrying terribly wrong. (Not that I did not make more than my fair share of errors when I was young—I was no doubt less wise that Thomas Stearns.) And then I wondered whether it is because I am not a man or not a much-lauded muckety-muck like Mr. Eliot that I feel so very differently from him.

I feel a lot more like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ chambered nautilus. I suppose Holmes (one of those interesting personages who had many roles in early American life) might even have had a nautilus on a mantlepiece somewhere, and so came to write the poem about it with that once often-recited line, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul.” It’s a pretty good metaphor, that nautilus. Years of writing poetry and novels and stories have added little nautilus chambers onto the soul of me, and I would not be what I am without them. Art is a soul-making activity for me and for many other people. My life and my self are larger than they would have been without them, like the life and self of the maker of marvels in Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful.”

But the other thing that’s left out of a statement like Eliot’s is the whole business of culture. Eliot was a maker and driver of culture, a giver of gifts to his world. Even if we decided today that he was not so important after all—if poets stopped being influenced by him and everyone stopped reading him—he still would have been a major force in the culture of his time. He helped make his world in a big way. (I say that even though I think Modernism pointed into a blind alley and, in its after-effects, has weakened poetry in particular.)

So in the end I think that, yes, the world is rather messed up and people can be surprisingly loveless even though they are really part of one huge family. But no committed poet “messes up” his life and wastes his time by attempting the beautiful. What messes up and warps lives is the pinning of every hope on being recognized and crowned with laurel leaves. So few receive them, those leaves: like the Artist of the Beautiful, many an artist never finds his audience, and that is a great sadness. And so I say that while I like laurel leaves and am glad to have the encouragement they bring, a life in art should make one’s desires larger, not smaller.


  1. For some reason the link won't hold today, so here is the "imprint" link:

    From the first few comments elsewhere, I'm still wondering if there is a male-female divide on the last topic, not just a Eliot-me divide...

  2. Didn't leave a tag on my comment about artists needing dissatisfaction as a goad--so will try to correct this! love, Mary Bullington

  3. Mary,

    Interesting that visual artists are responding to this one. Just got a thoughtful letter in response from another painter.

    Oh, on your facebook note? Right. Well, there's a lot of useful dissatisfaction of all sorts lying around!

    You mean the Eliot? You want to see the whole Paris Review interview? (I had linked to it--blogger is not doing links for me today inside the posts, alas. Tried it three times. Nada.)? Shall go ferret it up. Back soon.

  4. The interviewer was Donald Hall:

    What literary American do you think a writer could interview who would feel as big and culture-shaking as T. S. Eliot these days?

  5. I read your Nautilus and Laurel leaf blog just now. Too much to say for a comment, so I'll write.

    You've hit upon the essence of creativity, I think. I think making things is a way of pinning your thoughts and holding them for others to see if they so choose. We are the same inside, I think, whether we drag out those ideas and bring them to light, or leave them in our thoughts. But having them frozen and held creates a body of work that is sort of a diary of those thoughts and charts the progression of them. At least I think this way about my art. I know who I am inside is unchanged, whether I paint or not. But somehow painting allows me to open this me up and allow people to look at this aspect of my self. Does that make sense?

    I don't see myself as growing through my art. I do see my art as growing to be better able to express me. It's odd that it really doesn't seem to change me in those ways. I just keep slogging at trying to be better at expressing what I need to express.

    As far as writers not reading... Marly, there is a pervasive laziness in this culture. We want to jump to making a masterpiece without doing the hard work of learning the basics first. We want to be prodigies but not bother with learning to read, or read music, or play an instrument, or spell, or learn color theory or learn how to draw. We want, as a culture of young people who wish to do something creative, to just show up and get a prize.

    It doesn't surprise me that young writers don't read. Lots of young painters don't know beans about art history, or even bother to learn how to hold a brush. They want to 'emote' with paint and do 'abstracts.' Music is the same. Look at all the software out there that just lets kids string together beats and call it a composition. Or, more probably, a hit.

    You hit it on the head when you suggested Modernism did a disservice to writing. It also had a negative impact on art. No longer was it important to build on a solid skill set, or to honor or even understand where art had been. It became a self- serving, self-conscious feeding frenzy of banality. The more untainted by any training or practice, or skill, the more it is lauded by critics. So be it.

    As with a very great number of societal norms, I have learned to just opt out, tune out and do my thing. In the end, it probably won't matter because what I do is certainly not going to influence or be influenced by what they do.

    Thanks for getting my thoughts going this morning!


  6. There is a quotation from Einstein that i first heard from a very wise, very gifted spiritual man to describe what his life experiences felt continues to both comfort and haunt me: "As a circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness around it."

    i do believe in the basic goodness of the human race...for i am witness, daily, to countless acts of human kindness. i do believe the circle of light is growing...and yet it is clear that hate is keeping pace, that evil is real.

    i also know, without a shadow of doubt, that feeling compelled to publish/sell can do a lot of harm to one's soul. Impossible to know how many create in obscurity, just for the joy of it.

    Obviously, one of the very nice things about the "web" is that an artist can find an audience if he or she is willing to give it for free. i suspect that is enough, for many. The temptation to "make more" from it is difficult to ignore. And, for those of us not fit or able to "earn a living" in the more practical ways, the need to sell can be a kind of torture. i choose to think of it as my "dues"...there are those that must endure having a boss, commuting, etc...selling is one of the ickies that i must endure.

    Aren't we all just a bunch of jugglers?

    Re: the "writing w/o reading" article and the corresponding New Yorker article, i have a question: do the younger writers they reference not want to read at all or do they simply not want to read what older writing teachers think all writers "should" want to read? Poole sounded to me like so many of the "grown ups" during the sixties complaining about the younger generation as massive shifts were happening in our culture.

  7. Well, you did it again. You gave me so much to think about and such delight to read what you're thinking. I enjoyed Lynn's response, too, though I very much disagree with her opinion that modernism has been an all bad thing. Please. Modernism is part of who we are, one part of where we have been in the past century, give or take. We can learn from what it said/says about us and what it teaches us about art in general. And then we can follow our own devices and desires. One thing is for sure,---we're not finished products, we or our art and culture. And we might as well enjoy the whole bawdy, sometimes tawdry, parade because it's the one we're in.

  8. "But no committed poet 'messes up' his life and wastes his time by attempting the beautiful. What messes up and warps lives is the pinning of every hope on being recognized and crowned with laurel leaves." That really is the crux of it. I wish all idealistic, passionate young artists had a philosopher to tell them, you may think you are doing this in the hope of fame and glory. But really it's a path of self-knowledge and growth, and occasional joy -- both in seeing and in trying to express that seeing -- that most people rarely know. I do think there's a male-female divide, at least outwardly, but I think men are just as fragile as women when it comes to feeling deep-down sure of themselves. (I once saw a poll of skiers asked to self-assess their skill level: men tended to over-rate, women to under-rate themselves - but that's in public.) Thanks for writing this and continuing to think about these things.

  9. Thanks for posting the letter, Lynn! (I bugged you to post it because I think you have a somewhat different angle of vision and are quite interesting here.)

    * * *

    I feel sure these are things we ought to talk about, and although I know what you mean about not impacting or being impacted by that culture, I don't think it's hopeless for like-minded artists to make a change in the larger culture. I look at, say, "American Arts Quarterly" or the work of International Arts Movement and feel glad that we are working to change the culture.

    Lynn and I are congruent on many things, and where we differ is clearly on that business of art as enlarging life vs. art is revealing the self (and I would agree that art does reveal the self. I just think it does other things that she does not embrace.) She is more a Realist in her ideas of art and beauty; I am more a Romantic and a chaser of the sublime.

    I agree strongly about the way many people want to "do art" without skill and an understanding of the tradition. But of course that is in part the fault of their teachers who embraced the de-skilling of the arts and the de-materializing of the work of art and thereby established a kind of un-teaching in art schools and colleges.

    And yes, this leads to banality. Readers and viewers and listeners have forgotten over time to demand pleasure and beauty from art. Our critics have commented for years on the Emperor's new clothes.

  10. zephyr,

    Judging by what I see of college-age people through my older children, you may be right. I see very little reading out of the tradition. I see a lot of reading of graphic novels, comics, tumbler, etc.

    Yes, there is a kind of violence about the pressing need to market and promote. It is hard on a great many people.

  11. Marly,
    I too am having computer woes today, such as attaching to this comments link!
    Thanks again for your beautiful and thoughtful post. I think the difference IS gender, or, more exactly, not only gender, but the willingness to care about and for others. You are, as you often point out, essentially the mother of three, as essentially as a poet and writer. This shows in your work because it is not all about you, and glory, though if that came, it would not be unwelcome, I am sure. But that's not what it's about. You have other fish to fry. What you do, you do out of love of words and the work itself. I strive to be similarly disinterested about the outcome of the work. I can only strive though.
    As for messing up my life, I have no doubt that I have made plenty of choices that have done that, but choosing poetry was, as the Torah has it, choosing life. It could never be a mistake because it is where my soul is.

  12. Laura,

    I should clarify that I don't mean to disparage Modernists. I do dislike the trajectory of much that comes after Modernism (in my area, conceptual poetry, lack of interest in the music of poetry, lack of interest in sense in poetry, etc.)

    In fact, I am fond of Modernists in many areas. But the Modernists were people who had skills and knew the tradition, and you can tell that from their work, even though they set out to veer from and break the tradition in artful ways. They were still tethered to a tradition, even when floating in a new region.

    What I dislike is the idea that one can simply float in an abyss with no relation to the tradition--no understanding of the past masters, no skills handed down. That is to be untethered.

    There's an awful lot of work out there that comes from the navel, spun out of self only.

    And you're right; there's a great, lively mess out there with much happening. To talk about general tendencies is reductive. But it's hard to talk about general tendencies without being reductive.

    I think a subset of artists are trying hard to change the culture, to bring skills back to colleges, to bring back the idea that canons are worthwhile things--that humility before the achievements of the past is helpful to an artist.

  13. Beth,

    It is interesting to discuss, and it is pleasant to feel congruent. As we seem to be!


    Oh, we all mess up our lives in some way, being human. And yes, choosing poetry is a way of choosing more life. Glad you chose that way!

  14. Behind much of this discussion is the New Criticism, with its insistence on "the well-wrought urn": the idea that what poets do is make enduring objects of intrinsic beauty, and inexhaustible fonts of moral instruction. This is an extravagant claim, and when it crashes tends to bring down also the more modest and defensible claims that used to be made for what can be accomplished by writing poetry. If you believe in this goal, like Eliot, and you suspect that you haven't created such an object, then you've been wasting your time.

    A lot of current artists believe in none of the terms that go into the New Critical statement -- intrinsic value, moral instruction, objective beauty -- and furthermore they don't think civilization is going to be around for more than a few decades anyway. So of course they've rejected this idea of joining the Eternals. They just want to have their say before it all goes down.

    I tend to hew to older traditions of art as craft -- which emphasizes the joy of making pleasing, surprising, and useful things. But my chief pleasure in poetry is simply in conversation: many of my poems are written to particular people. I am what used to be called an occasional poet. I *want* my poems to be located in time and space, and, therefore, to be mortal.

    It does, of course, go to the building of my soul, such as it is; but that too, by my reckoning, is (mercifully) mortal.

  15. Dale,

    What interesting responses people have! And now I shall find out what I feel about this multitude of issues you bring up.

    I suppose at this juncture I should admit (thus undercutting myself entirely in some eyes) that I don't think it particularly matters to their poetry what poets (substitute art and type of artist at will) say in discursive print about their work--or even about other, larger things like the soul. The only thing that matters is whether the poem (or whatever it is) is a well-made thing (for me, preferably of beauty and truth, those tricky subjects) that gives some degree of aesthetic pleasure.

    What we say about what we do is simply a kind of scaffolding that helps us grope forward or else answers interview questions. If there's a writer I love, I may be interested in what he or she says about their work, but I don't make the mistake of thinking that what a person says at one particular time and mood is the summation of anything or the last word on the topic.

    For example, the fact that you consider yourself an occasional poet has not stopped you from growing as a poet. Nor does it mean that you know exactly how far you may go on growing. In some sense, it doesn't matter what you think--the road is there and you are following where it leads, singing your songs. (Doesn't that sound like I am call you a hobbit? Hmm.)

    In fact, critics and readers quite often run with something out of context and believe it and apply it wrongly forever after. Hence Austen is relegated to the status of a lady painter working on "a bit of ivory" instead of being understood as making a playful comment to a young nephew.

    Nevertheless, I don't shut up and enjoy hearing what people think at their particular point of time...

    Yes, I entirely agree that many writers are completely uninterested in being a part of tradition or in engaging in beauty and meaning, and I get the reasons why. However, I think that far from being a new stance, this is one that has bullied us for an awfully long time now. Likewise the sky has been falling and the end of the world coming since at least the Cold War.

    And I do not have any interest in living in the world those writers live in. I choose to live in a different world where beauty still gives pleasure and truth still exists. I make up my world as surely as a figure in a Wallace Stevens poem makes up and measures the landscape.

    Nor do I find that my life has to be limited because the world may be limited as to time--though certainly I see that the world is in a parlous state. I prefer to live as though I had all the time in the world to make my art. I think that's a proper stance for me in a perilous, precarious landscape.

    I already knew what I thought about most of those things, but I don't believe I had ever voiced much of it. Interesting comment, Dale: I always find what you have to say interesting.

  16. Fantastic post, Marly as is the discussion! Nodding my head as I read it all, yes... as a visual artist. I don't have time to do a lengthy comment, but others have already said it so very well. Will be back to read it again (house guests are coming!).

  17. marja-leena,

    Yes, I do think that these are some of the most interesting responses I've gotten--or at least as interesting as any in the past.

    Mary, Lynn, and Laura are full-time painters (well, Mary does a ton of collage.) Beth draws and paints and does much else. Zephyr is a photographer. So feel free to pipe up!

    Have a grand time with the guests.

  18. RE: "Modernism did a disservice to writing" and to visual art--I can't help but say it did a tremendous service, too. Not to say that your criticisms are unwarranted, Lynn. The history of art is (satisfyingly!) looooooooong whereas the history of one or two or three painting fads --or artists--is short.
    Time sifts out the crap.

  19. Mary,

    I should say in Lynn's defense (maybe she will come back and defend herself in person) that she certainly likes individual Modernists--she loves Kandinsky, she told me.

    My own feeling is that there can be strong artists in a movement and yet still the after-shocks of the movement can be difficult. We're still trailing after Modernism, being postmodern and then postpostmodern and so on. All of which strikes me as a bit ridiculous--let the next century name us. Let's not be so self-conscious that we name our own movements in their gradations.

    But I don't think the trajectory of that flight from Modernism on is landing us in a fruitful place. The whole business of de-skilling and de-materializing is just plain depressing.

  20. Marly and her legions of fans,

    Dare I say this is an age thing. Yes, I dare. (I am going on 46 this autumn for the record...)

    The "older" generation when the baby boomers were 18-45 (plus or minus) said the world is going to hell and wrote and produced long diatribes to point this out.

    The "older" generation now (the baby boomers, ahem) are saying the world is going to hell and write and produce long diatribes to point this out.

    I think some people need a healthy session of repeated viewings of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" and need to sit back with a glass of wine and watch the miracles today's youth is creating with jealous awe.

    But that's just me.


  21. Gary,

    I hate to disagree with you, but I don't think that's true because to say that is to remove responsibility from the boomers.

    Baby boomers have ground out a tremendous amount of faux art and are themselves in great part responsible for what has happened to the arts in the colleges and art schools that once passed on skills, knowledge of tools, and tradition. The boomers helped drive away subject matter and narrative from the arts. They have managed to destroy the institution of the English department in many places by their zeal for theory and for teaching pop culture and third-rate works with some political or sociological agenda.

    It was the baby boomers who ran with the end of Modernism and chose to promote and teach art without skill and art without--well, I'm not sure what to call it. Art without art, I suppose.

    Now many of their children or former students see no reason to pursue skills and tools and examine the works of the past.

    Now I'm not willing to be described as slamming all baby boomers either, so I'll say that there are plenty of boomers doing interesting work and trying to budge the ship of culture. But it does not matter the age, most artists have been affected by the 20th-century battle against beauty, tradition, truth, narrative, etc.

  22. P. S. to Gary

    For me, it's about the return of narrative, beauty, skills, humility before the masters, etc. to the realms of art. It's about living the larger life of art.

    But it would be a great mistake to take my words as blaming the young for the direction things have gone.

  23. Gary,

    Here is absolutely the most famous art project or stunt by a college student from the past century:

    It manages to be offensive, alarming, dangerous, ugly (vials of blood, abortion notes, etc.), and boring (dull as a work of art rather than as a cause of scandal) all at the same time. It is clearly more interesting to talk about it that to see it (a tenet of much art now) and managed to launch her career with great effectiveness.

    And this is the sort of thing I am strongly against...


    Lawsy, how can you be going on 46? That boggles.

  24. Marly,
    This discussion made my day. Let me gather my thoughts on these, and probably come out with a blog post.

    Some time ago,(1972) I wrote a book on the aesthetics of literature, and tried to guide my students as best I could about creating and appreciating art. The turbulent times at the politicised university that time relegated classes like mine to "artsy-fartsy non-essentials for sissies".

    The street demonstrations were infinitely more envigorating. Before they knew what their best weapons were for their angry revolutions, they found "political poetry", and even cursed with rhymed and rhythmical slogans and marching songs. That's more like it, I told my students. The trouble is the charlatans took over and destroyed the use of art for revolutions. Form did not achieve content and vice versa.

    More recently, we saw the Arab Spring revolts use their poetry to wage their revolutions.

    Not to worry, man will find some use for his art and his literature. He will define the culture where it will be used and appreciated. We can't have art in a sanitized vacuum.

    We are better off not remaining in the "dulce et utile" or "ars gratia artis" modes, really. Art for art's sake is suspect. Let man define what art he will make and how he will husband its energies. Otherwise, art will simply be an inert picture on the wall, a sing-songed poem on vimeo or You Tube. Hence, an Eliot feeling he may have wasted his time writing his kind of poetry.

    Come to think of it, T. S. Eliot was THE poet for us when we were at university arts and letters classes. Still is for me, after reading others.

    Random thoughts.

    Thanks for this erudite post, Marly.

  25. Albert,

    I am about to run off to sing (la la la, yes, I am going to make a fool of myself shortly) but just wanted to say how much I appreciate your response.

    Pointing to the way we people naturally turn to chant and rhythm and rhyme is a good reminder. Song is in our bones, and yes, it will come out, somehow.

    You and Lynn are the same on that idea about growing your art. Maybe I just had a smaller self that needed to grow! But I do feel bigger on the inside that I once did, although maybe that's from more than art. Well, definitely. But also that.

    But perhaps we're talking about the same things in upside down ways.

    La la la! Off I go--

  26. And if you do write a response, please leave me a link!

  27. Don't blame us baby boomers! I am here to tell you that most of the university-level art training I got was pure rubbish. NO technique was taught, except by the drawing teacher and one painting teacher. It was all about emoting. And these were no baby boomers, dearie, this was the generation before my generation. It was all part of the great 20th century revulsion against dead, academic, technique-based non(in its own way) art. All that anti-structure stuff that also resulted in our not wearing girdles, corsets, cravats, etc. So it's no good railing against baby boomers or any one group. This is the way culture happens, in waves and counter-waves. You're among the current counter-wavers. Mary is right. The crap will die a natural death in time. I'm so glad you're passionate about technique. I am, too, but blaming doesn't seem helpful or even correct. If you must blame something, blame the Industrial Revolution and all the technological advances since then that have created our culture's short attention spans. But that would be silly, wouldn't it? Do what you think is noble and right. That's all you can do. Of course, that IS what you're doing!

  28. Oh, I'm not really blaming baby boomers. I just am trying to tell Gary that I don't blame young people. And I think blaming the Industrial Revolution is an excellent idea that will take the blame off young, medium, and old alike!

  29. I have just been singing for two hours and feel . . . quite frivolous and as though I might just snap my fingers at all this.

    I just want to dance my dance, and to have a few people dance with me.


  30. I wonder about modern culture and what has brought all of this about.

    We are coming out of the age of The Individual, I think.
    In the Age of the Individual, it mattered less what one had to say than that one had something to say at all. It was very important to have people show that, yes, they had a voice as well. It mattered not whether one was simply howling into the night, or creating a howl that others could feel and not just witness.

    Does Literature follow the visual arts? It strikes me that what is happening to Literature (and the appreciation of it) is remarkably similar to what happened to the visual arts from the 1950's on.
    Pollock springs to mind (which is a little arbitrary and unfair).
    It really doesn't matter that a monkey could do the same (and would, given half the chance) what matters is the freedom to do it. And 'Freedom' deserves validation, does it not?
    Well, no. I do not think it does, necessarily.

    Artists dropped perspective (in many ways and willy nilly) for a while. People did not know what they were looking at.
    But creative artists learn perspective and then understand how it works, and how we see, and how they can present perspective in a new, exciting way that the mind can reach and that makes sense.
    Creative artists tend to be rather structured and focussed, I feel.
    I am sure it is the same with writers….

    I am happy to read that Haruki Murakami's, '1Q84' sold a million copies in Japan and is now expected to do equally well in Britain, and elsewhere. From what I read, Murakami's work is considered Literature with a capital 'L'. We shall see.

    What I do realize is that all these young people who are entering the world of writing will have to reinvent the wheel as they go along. They will have to work twice as hard, and blindfolded; as if writing were not hard enough.
    They will fail, unless they are of an extremely high intellectual bent.
    But if they are that, they will be reading…

    Oh…. this is far to large of a subject and I can only scratch away at the surface here.
    This sort of topic requires deep digging, and I am likely to bury myself in the process.

    What a blog posting, Marly! Well done!

  31. Paul,

    I think that literature has followed the visual (the increasingly less-visual, often!) arts in the 20th century. That is, people are STILL acting as though they are discovering something by modeling themselves after Duchamp after all these eons! So somebody publishes a book of train schedules and calls it a book of poetry and talks entertainingly about the whole project, and that's... how you make yourself a poet. Actually it's hard to figure out whether it's a book or an art project.

    My opinion is that it used to be more in the other direction--poetry and literature fertilized the visual arts and music and ballet and so on and then received inspiration in return. My feeling is that this is starting to turn around again among a certain group of people. For example, narrative is starting (barely) to return to painting. But there's been a big gap, and young painters no longer know what to paint, even if they are interested in narrative. In earlier times, literature was a huge source for painters, along with classical mythology and the Bible.

    Yes, I don't see how young writers can evade deep reading if they want to make something meaningful and beautiful. I know some teens and young adults like this, who just don't even see why they should bother with books, even though they like to write. Most writers of the past had a passionate, book-mad chapter in childhood or at least their 20's. I think that's vital.

    That's a lot of people reading Murakami. But a great many people on the Japanese bestseller lists are writers who used an app for phones and promulgated a text in bits over time and then brought out abook afterward. Curious.

  32. Marly, you say you aren't blaming the baby boomers, but this is what you said: "Baby boomers have ground out a tremendous amount of faux art and are themselves in great part responsible for what has happened to the arts in the colleges and art schools that once passed on skills, knowledge of tools, and tradition. The boomers helped drive away subject matter and narrative from the arts. They have managed to destroy the institution of the English department in many places by their zeal for theory and for teaching pop culture and third-rate works with some political or sociological agenda.

    It was the baby boomers who ran with the end of Modernism and chose to promote and teach art without skill and art without--well, I'm not sure what to call it. Art without art, I suppose.

    Now many of their children or former students see no reason to pursue skills and tools and examine the works of the past."

    That's blaming, isn't it?

    Photography, to (re)state the really obvious, quelled the urge by painters to try to recreate the world as it appears. Of course, that urge persists and some people even have the talent and intelligence to make such rendering still interesting. But, gosh, we are way beyond the time in world culture/history, aren't we, when mimesis should be the chief goal of painting or any other art form? This talk of perspective being the foundation of good painting and harkening back to the time when literature, classical mythology and the Bible were the sources for its content, makes me wonder what century I've stumbled upon here ;D.

  33. Laura,

    Don't think I disagree with you--I do think we are talking abut two different things.

    Yes, I think that we have stretched out the dregs of modernism. But I'm more thinking about things like the insistence on, in 2011, doing things like saying one is inventing something new in poetry by following Duchamp.

    As for narrative in painting, my point is that people used to have a subject matter fit for their own times, and that now they do not have a subject matter. So while we are seeing a return to narrative, most people don't seem to know what their subject is.

    I have suggested that literature used to be a subject matter. Perhaps in some way it will be again. That way will not be the same way it once was before.

    Or maybe that won't happen at all.

    But when I criticize anything in the 20th century, I am not saying that I don't love the painters, composers, writers of the era. I'm saying the trajectory of things has been wrong and leading us to a place that is dull.

    I don't want to talk about, say, a poem that has jettisoned meaning and the love of sound.

    That's all.

    Blog comments are a poor instrument for saying this--maybe I shall write a book next time I am up in the night!

  34. Oh, and I think you are going in exactly the right direction for you--but I think there are others searching for a way but confused because it's hard to think how to go forward with narrative, say, in a manner that is right for 2011 when that path was abolished long ago. So the old path is not there; a new path must be dreamed.

  35. Also, since we are quoting that passage:

    "Now I'm not willing to be described as slamming all baby boomers either, so I'll say that there are plenty of boomers doing interesting work and trying to budge the ship of culture. But it does not matter the age, most artists have been affected by the 20th-century battle against beauty, tradition, truth, narrative, etc."

    No doubt I went too far in trying not to blame the young, as Gary would have it, but I stand by those words...

  36. Well, your small disclaimer at the end does soften the blow some ;D. I do think to blame the art that immediately preceded us for our contemporaries' failure to make a vibrant response to their own world is wrong. And if art is to have any power or meaning at all, it has to be that kind of response. Retrogressive longing is not likely to produce great, or even good, art.
    Where we as a culture HAVE suffered terribly is in our inability to manage a world dominated by technology and mass (hysterical) media. If we don't get a handle on THAT, we've got an even longer, more precipitous downhill slide ahead.

  37. Laura,

    Yes, you're no doubt right. I am guilty of being a little over the top there. And I think that the whole business of cause and effect is so complex that it is silly to try and sum it up in a comment.

    I was thinking about narrative in art and how certain people I know are re-thinking what it can be. In particular, I was thinking of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who has plunged deeply into saint's lives and Biblical stories. And I was thinking of a local painter, Ashley Cooper, and her domestic narratives. I believe both of those painters are examples of a great surge of interest in elements than were abandoned in painting under Modernism and that now are being reborn in a way that looks new and fresh.

    And I agree about the issue of technology. I regret the loss of many things that came with a less technologically-complex world: leisure with silence; the ability of your average child to be still and thoughtful; inwardness; a different pace where one does not change "pages" with such rapidity; the ascension of entertainment to a position over art (rather than a lower position from which it occasionally flew upward.)

    * * *

    Three and a half hours spent on the orthodontist: my third child now is free of braces. That makes three sets of braces for three children... Glad that is done.


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.