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Friday, November 03, 2017

Hot Buttons in the Arts

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Christmas at Camelot, study for a screen-print, 2016.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series.

No undead Nobels!

The lesson of history is that most writers, however celebrated they might have been in their own time, are quickly forgotten. --Samuel Johnson

The latest flap about the Nobel prize in literature is Daphne Williams-Fox's effort to have the Nobel prize awarded to the dead, and specifically to her grandfather, William Carlos Williams. While I give a bow of recognition to a reader-grandaughter's feelings, the current discussion misses something essential. And the argument against dead recipients is not simply because, as biochemist Sir Richard J. Roberts, said, “It could lead to a lot of problems [because] you could imagine the recipients all being dead, which might not be good for the ceremony.” Shades of the Zombie Apocalypse!

Williams-Fox is packed with unimpeachable sentiments. She says, “It’s wrong to also see a hugely influential figure like my grandfather not considered." She stresses that changing the rule would allow books to be awarded on literary merit. And she's right that Williams has been influential. She's right that it's sad to see people overlooked. Absolutely right. We can all come together in sweet, chiming chorus and agree with the general sentiment that unfairness exists in awards (and marketing and public acclaim and many other elements of the publishing-and-rewarding system.) For that matter, aren't we all clear on the idea that life itself tends to be unfair? But think about this: rewarding the long-dead is absolutely the only way books could be reliably awarded on literary merit.

The Nobel prizes, particularly in literature, are a salutary illustration of the fact that we sometimes get it right and sometimes get it wrong. They are a picture of justice side by side with injustice. Societies and writers are familiar companions in the realms of justice and injustice. Did life and readers get it right with Poe, scrabbling for survival? With Melville, who kept writing, decades into obscurity? With Kafka? With Keats? With Dickinson? With Hurston? Did anybody realize exactly how large Shakespeare would loom through time? The Nobel prizes in literature are a reminder that we don't always get it right, that we don't see fully and understand our own times and our wielders of words.

Ashley Norwood Cooper, Sleepless Night, 2017
36" x 30"
We don't need the Nobel prize to decide who is a major writer; that's not its purpose. Why don't we need it to measure greatness? Because we have time, the Mower. Time is wiser than we are. Some books are alive in their own time but suffer a decline among readers as years pass. Perhaps they rode the waves of culture and did not manage to catch and seal the energies of life, so they eventually vanished. The writers and artists of all sorts who are remembered are the ones who remain alive in lengths of time, who influence other writers and artists as time passes. Generative writers. Fertile writers. Writers of books that help their literary descendants to flourish.

To imply that the Nobel committee members have to "get it right" is also wrong. Because they are human beings seated in time and blown by the frisky, sometimes-harsh winds of culture--no way to escape that! Neither the Nobel Prize Committee nor our canon-abolishing universities are able to tell us for certain what current books or plays or poems captured life and will remain. Because these are human structures and institutions, limited in time. There is something much more powerful than English departments and committees that will sound the last word. Instead, we have the Nobel to show us what a society thought at a particular time.

So let the Nobel prize in literature be tossed to the living, sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly. The prize sharply illuminates our inability to roam through time, to see what will live beyond our own day. It shines a light on our successes and our failures at clear sight and understanding, at our limitations as beings caught in the sticky web of time. And those are things we need to recall.

Firing the canon

The central argument against rewarding the dead relates to what's rather pompously called canon formation. It used to be assumed that high aspiration and achievement in writing meant that work might last. Keats, for example, openly aspired to be in the canon of great English poets. In the last century, the canon was essential to the English major. But many (most?) English departments in universities don't teach to or support a canon these days. (As William Giraldi points out, neither do many readers: "The potent brand of immortality that was possible for Wordsworth, Keats, and Austen is no longer possible, and for myriad reasons, chief of which is the basement-level regard we now have for serious writers—the world doesn’t care about literature the way it did when those three were undergoing their immortalization.")

I'm curious about the recent attack on The University of Nebraska - Lincoln that started when a student was allegedly bullied by professors and then administrators. I don't know a lot about it; maybe you do! But I was particularly intrigued by how the event ended up impacting the English Department. In response to events, Nebraska senators have asked whether anyone teaches English anymore at UNL. When legislators start muddling around in the academy and asking such questions, trouble often follows.

I was interested enough to look up the English Department's mission statement, which begins with this mouthful of many marbles: "We, the faculty of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believe that one of the greatest strengths of our department is that in all areas of our curriculum—literary and film studies, creative writing, composition and rhetoric, and the digital humanities—we help students develop their capacities in imaginative reasoning so that in their lives as citizens of the world and members of their local communities they can discern connections and synthesize across seemingly incommensurable ideas or beliefs." The mission statement goes on to say that imaginative reasoning feeds into and supports a number of core values our department affirms, including:
  • pursuing social justice
  • affirming diversity
  • engaging with a broad array of real and imagined communities based on empathetic understanding
  • fostering a sense of belonging
  • instilling a desire for civic engagement
It is curious to see how the intentions of a department and its majors have changed over time. There's no mention of literature or the best thoughts and creations of humankind. The language announces itself through a sort of clubby, up-to-date-with-the-culture jargon that is exactly what the writers desire to convey. The major is now a different thing entirely from what it once was, with different aims and different results.

Clearly the English major has come a long way from when I was an undergraduate, back in the winding mists of time, reading Gawain and the Green Knight and Shakespeare and George Eliot and Dickinson and Yeats. My recollection is being full of fire to make the beautiful, the true, the fine, the lasting--all that impossible youthful aspiration! I believed that adding to the sum of such things was a noble goal, one that did a little bit to transform the nature of the world.

Statement art

Last night I had a conversation with a poet friend on Facebook that seems to be related to issues of replacing art (literature, in the Nebraska comments) with some other program. Here's a little excerpt:
M: ...despite my Southern allergy to saying anything the least bit rude, I feel impelled to confess that I dislike this sort of "art" because it has no depth of meaning (the meaning is plumbed and exhausted instantly), no respect for craft, and no beauty--it interests me no more than Tracey Emin's unmade bed or Jeff Koons's balloon animals. The avant garde (and the ability to transgress in art) died about the time of Warhol's soup cans, but an amazing number of art schools haven't figured that out yet and keep producing people who do profoundly boring work. Shoot me now!
L: I can understand where you're coming from. Still, there is truth in the artist's statements about the pain that there is in making these kinds of art. I feel this national malaise in somatic and emotional ways every day-- and as the blows to civility affect us all, it seems harder to even write or make art...
M: I would say she's making a statement, period. I get it; I'm not stupid. I get it instantly. But just as I don't accept Emin's tent or bed as art, and I don't accept this as art. If we're going to talk about politics and the morale of the country, well, that's entirely different--a whole different issue from the debasement of art. Of course, people will have conversations around such objects (just as they might around other objects or around articles in a magazine) and many will find those conversations significant and meaningful. The conversations may advance thought. (But I still feel moved to say that I don't think that makes the objects into art. The visual arts have been suffering a malaise ever since Warhol. It's interesting to see the return of painting with narrative and figurative work...)
L: There are, nevertheless, artists (and art) that also desire to make "statements" - but are infinitely more layered and complex. So I agree with you on that. I think of Kara Walker's work, for instance - and compared to this one - instantly, also, one can see what a far cry it is from "statement, period."
I confess to being quite fascinated with the return of story and figure to painting, and the disparate ways that is being done, just as I'm interested in how form and sound and meter are seeping back into the mainstream of poetry. The aftershocks of Modernism may be dying away. Or not. I'm unsure. Are we heading forward by going back through tradition, and what will that look like? What does it already look like?

The art market looms like a monster, casting long shadows. Almost all art is eventually forgotten, but we are in an odd time when the market has thrown millions at new artworks, elevating their value in the eyes of many. The market does not want art schools to teach skills and craft again, does not want painting (long in abeyance) to return to figure and narrative, does not want already-purchased pieces (investments) to lose value. But a shift is occurring, little by little. What will happen next?


  1. The art world is so useful for extreme test cases.

    Giraldi, by the way, is completely wrong, assuming that "we" and "world" include France, Germany, Austria, etc.

    1. Extreme test cases! Indeed.

      I think that "we" does not include a certain segment of the population here, either. But it does include a great many.

    2. p. s. I knew it did not include you! Or me, for that matter. I expect that is obvious in both cases.

  2. I agree with you on this one. My foray into genealogy has taught me of time's tides. And of context! The Mission Statement you quote had me rolling with laughter (I'm that part of the academy who makes every attempt to keep it real, but I feel that it is becoming ever more difficult to keep the lingo simple and honest). What will happen next indeed?

    1. I hate to say it, but I'm more and more relieved that I quit teaching right after tenure. Academia increasingly seems like the wrong place for me as a writer. Unfettered thought seems impossible when ideology becomes too dominant.

      You should read the entire thing, then! It's quite long.

    2. I will just have to look in the Gulf of Spam every day. This popped up, but your other comment fell down into the depths...

  3. Regarding academia, I'm glad I jumped ship too. On Twitter these days, some medievalists are declaring that their primary purpose as scholars is to defeat white supremacy. Of course, they can't stop the exploitation of graduate students and adjuncts in their own departments; the corporatization of and domination of the cult of sports at their own institutions; or apparently rampant sexual harassment in their own field...but by golly, they're going to crush those neo-Nazis with persuasive interpretations of history.

    I think you're right about the return of story to fine art, and it bodes well for the future. When Diane and I were in the warehouse arts district in Asheville this summer, one of the artists whose prints were selling like crazy was a woman who paints animals in quirky ways and amid cosmic settings. People want story, or the implication of story, but they also want art that conveys humor or lightness of spirit more than they even know. (When my sweetheart, who minored in studio art in college, happens upon a work or a print that makes her laugh, I know right away we're bringing it home.)

    1. When I think of my professors who were enraptured with Old English or the poems of the Medieval world! Yes. "English" has become something different from what it was, and no longer supports truth, beauty, and strength in art as a prime goal--it no longer is happily married to literature.

      Perhaps preserving the best that has been made out of words in the vernacular does not belong in the academy. It was not there for long, historically speaking. Readers and writers are the ones who will preserve what gets preserved. And time.

      A fear of mine is that students and faculty alike no longer have a strong sense of history, that they don't grasp what happened in the twentieth century. So why not lean neo-Marxist, if you have not deeply considered the destruction of civilizations in the past years? Like so many then, some of our young people and faculty are full of scorn for others--millions of people, in fact. How can that be anything but dangerous?

      Yes, I have painter friends who pursue narrative and figurative work, and I always feel that the way forward is through tradition. Otherwise an artist just embraces chaos instead of dancing along the border place where order and chaos meet--the fruitful place.

      I know the artist you mean, I think! I'll have to rummage my closet, but if it's a woman (upstairs and maybe on Roberts St.) who does mostly prints, I may have two of her prints as t-shirts. She just had a few hanging in a corner. Last spring my mother and I rambled the whole River Arts District and ate at White Duck Taco because she said no one would go with her and she wanted to see what it was! Woman of curiosity still...

  4. There are too many attractive invitations in this enormous post, so let me reach for Occam's Razor. Nobel Prizes for literature should not go to dead authors because at the rate of roughly five a year (that's all categories, not just lit.) we'd have to wait two hundred years to get rid of the backlog. And that's starting with Aristophanes. By then Jonathan Frantzen, say, would be well and truly dead and we'd be running just to stand still. PS I picked JF purely at random.

    Never mind all that. That UNL ED mission statement - the fact that they have such a pathetic business-y thing! So juicily vulnerable. Others I see have bitten the cherry but I cannot stay my hand. The senators wonder whether English is taught there; they could have asked whether English is spoken there.

    In fact the statement's onlie begetter should be be required to sit an exam for which the sole question would be:

    "Fostering a sense of belonging." Say what is wrong with this sentence.

    I wonder whether the examinee would be capable of pointing out that this is not a sentence. That would be a start and I wouldn't be so cruel as to ask why. Far too technical. In any case I'm told that grammar is no longer taught. The preference is for knee-jerk whimsy, snag a passing thought, check it hasn't the slightest taint of ratiocination, and write it down. What's important is its freshness, let's go further - its virginity.

    I've just smoothed my trousers and wondered whether I have a sense of belonging. The awkwardness of the words urges me to deny I belong to the human race. Asssuming this is human race talk.

    No, I can't go on. It's fish in a barrel. No sport at all. Should I say what's wrong with "empathetic understanding"? "Not" as DT would say.

    1. You should read the whole statement. Then write a book! Thought you would enjoy the turgidity and jargon--glad you relished it.

      Not only did you pick a name at random but you spelled the name wrong! Haha. Salutory blow for writers of bestsellerdom.

  5. "The potent brand of immortality that was possible for Wordsworth, Keats, and Austen is no longer possible, and for myriad reasons, chief of which is the basement-level regard we now have for serious writers—the world doesn’t care about literature the way it did when those three were undergoing their immortalization."

    When did they "undergo their immortalization"--assuming that this not a new, odd euphemize for "die"? When they wrote, in any case, much of the English-speaking world was not literate. The male educated portion of the population had been schooled in the classics of Latin and Greek, and I suspect had been left to read the literature of their native tongue as they might. Did they prefer Wordsworth and Keats to Campbell?

    I will add that I have considerable regard for serious writers, but not necessarily for all those who advertise themselves as serious.

    1. "Undergoing their immortalization" is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek mouthful, though it still has a sort of mummifying effect. I assume Giraldi is talking about a grand ascension to the hallowed halls of the canon.... And he can't say that these days without his tongue finding its way to his cheek, just a little.

      Halls of the canon... Which, more logically speaking, is simply a little free library composed of writers whom readers still read and writers still find inspiring.

      I expect a few did prefer Wordsworth, in which case they might not have liked Keats. Or vice versa. And probably a great many preferred Campbell! It is either comforting or discomforting to note that few people have been mad about literature in any age. I'm not sure which it should be.

      People do say such a lot of things! Right this instant I am still thinking about how Camille Paglia said that the only women poets of genius are Emily Dickinson and Sappho. And how she says, "Men's egotism, so disgusting in the talentless, is the source of their greatness as a sex. . . . Even now, with all vocations open, I marvel at the rarity of the woman driven by artistic or intellectual obsession, that self-mutilating derangement of social relationship which, in its alternate forms of crime and ideation, is the disgrace and glory of the human species." So men take home the crime and the artistic or intellectual obsession. I wonder if she still feels precisely the same way.

  6. I recall being told as a young TA at a research university that those of us in the humanities are in the front line, responsible for defending human values, student rights, academic standards, and the interests of the down-trodden.
    I always took this seriously, reaching out to students who were living in their cars (and TAs also), those who were in danger of being deported to countries where they and their families would be murdered, those who were ill and without insurance, etc.
    It does not seem incompatible to me to stand against the inhumane in our culture, wherever, whatever, and whomever it may be, even if it does not relate directly to our academic specialties.
    I never advocated directly for particular political interests when I was in the classroom, but always against the cruel and inhumane. I don't think this is or was inappropriate. Students learn from what they are taught. The choices teachers make of what to teach and how to teach it will influence these students for life.

    1. You know, what you say here doesn't seem to have overlap with that mission statement! No jargon, no huge boggy claims, no pomposity and self-righteousness--just one human being doing what she can.

      I expect you also taught literature.

      I expect many of us like to do the same.

    2. p. s. Time has passed since your experience--you can find a lot of students with current stories of being bullied by teachers and administration for not thinking "rightly." This is a problem because it abolishes the idea of the university as a place to think and discuss freely.

  7. Some of those things on that list of goals are so vague as to be meaningless. "Affirming diversity"--what does that mean? Does it mean affirming that it exists? Does it mean affirming it's a good thing? What exactly is "diversity"? Put five people in a room and you'll get at least four answers to that question, which I suppose is meta-diversity.

    "Instilling desire for civic engagement" is also amusingly vague. If you're tired of this sort of thing at a public university and lobby the state legislature to mandate that it change, you're "civically engaged," but I'm pretty sure that's not what they have in mind! (For what it's worth, the humanities left me less interested in civic engagement and more interested in community work that allows me to "engage" with individuals.)

    Just before I left academia, I was stuck on a committee tasked with writing a new mission statement for the English department. The air was rich with buzzwords that day. Two colleagues proposed "social justice" and "cultural literacy" as departmental goals. They were irked when I pointed out that the former is left-leaning jargon and conservatives pay lip service to the latter. I asked them to define, in plain language, what they meant by those things. The discussion was excellent, and the resulting mission statement was really lucid. Then the bureaucracy got hold of it and turned it back into jargon, at which point I was glad to be eyeing the exit...

    1. That's an amusing story about the missing statement. Entirely convincing. Writing by committee is always difficult! Especially when the administration weighs in.

      I can imagine a freshman English class poring through the mission statement and attempting to turn it into simple, clear language. Good challenge.

      I agree so strongly that plain old volunteering is better than over-heated statements--doing practical things to help others in need. It also is the death of jargon because real problems have simple, direct solutions, and real people in need speak directly in ordinary (sometimes colorful) language.


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.