|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"
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
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.
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!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?
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."
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?