Tuesday, May 07, 2013

On "the value of art"

Tranquil scene with fish, colored pencil, from the sketchbooks
of Laura Murphy Frankstone at Laurelines
Yesterday I read Michael W. Clune's article, "Bernhard's Way," and have been thinking about his summation of art (in part borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu and his ideas on language as a mechanism of power, reflective of one's position in a social space) as viewed by "the tradition," "the postmodern case," and "the new aesthetic criticism." As presented, the three compose a sort of Gordian knot that needs the simplicity of a sword to solve--at least from a writer's point of view.

Poetry and stories may exhibit what is called "formal relations within the work," and may at times appear to emerge from antagonistic "social relations," but for me these do not determine what critics call the "value" of a work of written art. Surely this "value of art" is deeper and more essential than either antagonistic relations without or formal relations within.

So how do we find the "value of art?"

Whether a piece of writing is stillborn, dies away with the progress of time, or flourishes is a measure of the amount of life captured in a net of words. Creation is alive; sub-creation must also contain life. It's that simple.

But catching such a bright, silvery fish is nigh-impossible. The effort of capturing life in words demands the dedication of the writer's own years, and even then there's no assurance. It's that precarious. It's that strange a goal.


  1. It may not cover the written word, but in 1981 Michael Nesmith defined the value of art (at least painting) in a very simple way: By the pound.


  2. Michael Nesmith! You are funny--and have a long Monkee-memory. I shall have to go and look.

    Certainly the visual arts are still determined by coin! But that will not help when a work is racked by time... Although in many cases I suppose it means that a piece bought for a high price may linger in museum storerooms. As I expect a good many over-praised objects from the Art Bubble era will be...

    The counterpart will be the book bought for too much money and given a huge print run, appearing for years and years on rummage sale tables before vanishing at last. Later on, it will no doubt be discovered by graduate students devoted to the whims of popular culture, if such things are still studied in the future.

    But a great many works have neither a circulation in their own time nor any lasting presence. To calculate their value, we would have to turn to something like Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful," I suppose.

  3. Sometimes criticism makes me laugh, and that article certainly gave me a bit of giggling. I think you're correct that there is more to art than any of the ideas put forward in the essay, and maybe I'm a Philistine but I think the way to cut the Gordian knot is to just say that "art" ignores theory and classifications. Artists don't really create in an atmosphere of post-postmodernism, because that atmosphere doesn't really exist outside of the world of criticism. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf would've denied they were part of the same movement, and I'm sure that to call the author of Finnegans Wake a "modernist" misses a lot of the point of the Wake. I'm getting off track, sorry.

    I think you're right, I was going to say, that art's value is to be found in its spark of life, maybe no matter how small the audience for/awareness of that spark. Artists need not find a way to explain their art in a critical atmosphere where art is possibly nothing but an unknowing facade for power relationships or whatever; artists need only pour the spark of life into their work. Sometimes, as you say, that spark isn't there or doesn't last long or goes ignored.

    Maybe better to say that art is part of the ongoing history of ideas, or part of the ongoing conversation humanity has with itself about itself, and we should wonder what the value of that is, in order to place a value on art.

    This is my third try at a comment on this post. I keep attempting to say something and failing. Clearly, I don't quite know what it is that I want to say. So I'm stopping now.

  4. I guess I distrust all impulses towards immortality, and none more than the impulse towards immortal art. But you know that. "That strain again! It came o'er my ear like the sweet South --" You know? A restless pawing over of things that won't stand handling. Give it a rest, Count :-) But at any rate, we neither of us buy the notion of art as unpleasant medicine. Better Grecian urns than that.

  5. Scott,

    Well, you may not know what your final resting place is there, but those are all interesting ideas...

  6. Dale,

    Yes, I do!

    We know that art can last for some thousands of years and still impact us today. We probably are too young, we humans, to know what it might mean for a thing to last much longer. Perhaps we will end before that time can come--before mountains are worn to sand and deep lakes become hills.

    But I don't think there's anything wrong with having the aspiration to make something that burns with beauty and power. Anyway, a writer doesn't think about "immortality" of a work when making it, after all. I hope he/she is immersed in it, or it in her...


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.