Tuesday, August 31, 2010

But Is It Art?


I mentioned yesterday that I'd been to Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey.  Not all of their work is outdoors.  There are small indoor pieces too.

Above is a snapshot I took of something I saw in an exhibition hall.  The question I'd like to pose for you is:  Is it art or not?  And if not, why not?

Answer below.

And if I'm allowed to grouse . . .

Did everybody notice that Shirley Jackson made it into the Library of America,  the closest thing this country has to an official literary canon?  And how about that review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review?

It really ticked me off.

Essentially, the review is a pathology.  It says:  Here's what was wrong with Shirley Jackson, and how it defines everything she wrote.  It ends with a brief discussion of Merrycat, the protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, who in the concluding judgment:

. . . manages to turn her crumbling family home, where she lives with her sister and her dotty uncle, into a pure expression of her own childish and profoundly unstable personality, a playhouse of disturbed dreams. It’s a place for her to hide, deep in herself, safe from the sinister encroaching of the outside world. In a way, Merricat’s crazy house is where writers go when they write, that quiet spot where nothing is ever as peaceful as it seems. It’s where Shirley Jackson went, anyway, and where she stayed, the scary place that felt like home to her.
Now, I understand that in today's celebrity culture, all artists are judged by gossip.  But this particular riff is even more pernicious than that.  It's a late survival of a sexist explanation of why there are women artists of genius when clearly there shouldn't be.

Here's how it goes:  Genius, whether literary or artistic, is a primal force, extremely powerful and even destructive in nature.  It takes great strength to contain it within a human being.  Men have this strength but women, being the weaker sex physically, morally, and intellectually, do not.  Sometimes one will suffer the misfortune of having genius and it will inevitably warp her into something ugly and unhappy and inhuman.

This is not my theory, remember.  I think it's self-evident horse hockey.

But it's something that was endemic to Academia for a long, long time.  It's the reason why women were discouraged from going into the arts.  To protect the poor little dears.

There was a story I heard several times when in college that upon hearing of Sylvia Plath's suicide, Anne Sexton had in a rage accused Plath of stealing her death.  It was always told approvingly, and never by women.

Yeah, okay, being human we're going to gossip about Jackson, the same way we do about Dylan Thomas or H. P. Lovecraft.  But it's wrong to define the art -- which is the best thing about any of us -- as a subset of the gossip.  Shirley Jackson wrote brilliant and enduring works and the appearance of her Library of America volume should be the occasion for a joyous celebration of them.  With cake and multicolored balloons.

We can always be catty after the party's over.

Above:  It is and isn't art.  The tubs were put out to solicit contributions from the public of found objects that the Grounds for Sculpture's current artist-in-residence can use to create a new piece.  Looks a lot like art already, dunnit?



HANNAH'S DAD said...

> It takes great strength to contain it within a human being. Men have this strength but women, being the weaker sex physically

It has been said that the only two beings masculine enough to contain true genius have been Norman Mailer and Chuck Norris.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Shirley Jackson: I owe my knowledge of her to Stephen King. In his nonfiction book about horror - can't remember the name - he talked her up so strongly that I went and sought out _We Have Always Lived in the Castle_ and _The Haunting of Hill House_ and best of all, a fat volume of stories called _Just an Ordinary Day_. I'd hate to have missed out.

Michael Moorcock's _Wizardry and Wild Romance_ convinced me to have a go at Gene Wolfe, an author I'd avoided because I thought _The Shadow of the Torturer_ sounded pretty cheesy. Mind you, he also spent a chapter accusing Tolkien of being infantile bourgeois pap, but I can't hold that against him because what if I'd never read Wolfe? It doesn't bear thinking about.

And for that matter, though I'd owned _Lud in the Mist_ for many years, it took your book to actually make me go and read it.

The moral? Critical writing is a good thing.

David Stone said...

I think that academia and critical journalism has this stick up a certain place when it comes to judging that _Seriousness_ of fiction, and one of the ways they can excuse themselves for liking someone's work is by demonstrating that the author in question lived some kind of dramatic turbulent life of suffering. I suppose that in many cases it is true, but don't we all to some extent?

Michael Swanwick said...

I spent the past day thinking about people I've known whose aberrant personal lives would explain EVERYTHING about their fiction, if only they'd been writers.

As for criticism . . . I was in a bookstore once and gave Jack Dann twenty bucks and said, "Buy me a book." When he chose Guy Davenport's THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION I said, "You know, I spent four years in college reading criticism and I never once thought to ask what why we should read it."

Jack immediately said, "For the same reason people should read our fiction -- because it's entertaining." And he was right. About the book, about Davenport, about criticism.

(But I'd give a pass to people who can't stand reading criticism. Not everybody likes baseball either.)

David Stone said...

The funny thing is, most of the schools of criticism that appear to have the most currency in academics these days claim to have severed the connection between a writer (especially their experiences) and a given text. But I think that people who write book reviews for public consumption figured out this makes their job kind of hard and isn't as fun as doing things the traditional way. Probably publishers didn't like it either, assuming they even cared in the first place.

Eileen Gunn said...

Michael, I don't think that's a grouse. I think it's a rant, and a good one.

Arthur D. Hlavaty said...

For sexual balance: It is alleged that John Berryman's suicide note was addressed to Robert Lowell and said, "Your move."

Nathan said...

Nope. It's not art, because there is no intention to it. A grouping of random objects, even a grouping made by several different people, can be art, but in my mind it requires an initial intentional creative spark.

Now your photo on the other hand is art. You saw a pile of random things and took that intentional step to capture that moment and share it. Creation out of the chaos.

To me that's art. Is it 'good' art? Well, I'm no critic.

janeyolen said...

I am tired of criticism that is personally directed, not at the book but at the author.

I am tired of bad critical guesses. (Someone once wrote that my work was highly informed by a particular book WHICH I HAD NEVER READ. My rejoinder was that both that author and I had CLEARLY READ THE SAME EARLIER MATERIAL.) You think you know my influences? Ask me. I'm still available. After I'm gone is the only time you can make such guesses and not be found out.

I am tired of critics who want me to have written a different book. Hell, write your own damn book then.

What kind of critical essays do I admire: ones that tackle the book at hand, suggest books to tag-team with it, leave off spoilers, not conflate bad copyediting with bad writing (not my fault if printers' errors slip through, folks, unless it's a self-published book!), praise where due, critique where due, say if the emperor/empress has no clothes.


Michael Swanwick said...

Jane makes an extremely good point about asking questions of an author while she is still around. My book on Hope Mirrlees would have been much less interesting if Suzanne Henig hadn't interviewed her at length (about her work! God bless you, Ms Henig!) for "Queen of Lud." And I'm extremely grateful for whoever it was who just before she died wrote to Mirrlees asking if T.S. Eliot had been influenced by her poem. (She had no idea whether he'd read it or not; the subject had never come up.)

The other day I wrote Grania to ask if she had any idea what the strangeness in Avram Davidson's ISLAND UNDER THE EARTH (the first book of an unfinished trilogy) was all about. She didn't -- and I had to ask why I hadn't asked Avram that question myself, back when we were exchanging letters.

A wonderful critical resource, a living writer is. Not entirely reliable, of course. But it's a pity they're not consulted more often.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

> A wonderful critical resource, a living writer is. Not entirely reliable, of course. But it's a pity they're not consulted more often.

Excellent point. So - I've been wondering this for a while: Was your story 'A Winter's Tale' a deliberate nod in the direction of Gene Wolfe?

It might seems a bit facile to link the two just because of comparisons between the doglike creatures in 'A Winters Tale' and the Alzabo (??? I think) in _The Book of the New Sun_, but I thought I saw more than that - the heartlessness of the telling and the quite disconnected framing story also led me towards Wolfe.

Matthew Brandi said...

Dear Michael,

I think I must be missing something. I confess I know nothing of Shirley Jackson's life and nothing of any gossip about her life. After reading your reaction to it, I did read the review. ()

You accuse the review of falling into the "she wrote it but she was crazy" class, and of attributing that craziness to a woman's inability to contain the destructive force of genius, right?

I've tried, but I can't see anywhere in the piece the "genius drove the woman crazy" theme/theory. Where is it hiding?

Is it at least guilty of "she wrote it but she was crazy"? The closest I can see it comes to that is "Jackson knew too well that there’s not much peace in houses, either: no place, anywhere, to hide", but that could simply be an attribution of an insight to Jackson. Surely, it doesn't have to be read as "only a crazy person would think there's no peace in houses". Isn't it a compliment to her work, rather than an insult to her sanity?

Elsewhere we get "Eleanor does dream, but the stories, for her as for her creator, are rarely sweet." But again, this is about the content of the stories Jackson tells, not stories to be written about her, & not the content of her dreams, about which it says nothing. Right?

And we have "for Jackson, everything, even her own apparently happy family life, turns strange in the telling." Again, it is in the telling (the work) that her family life is said to turn strange, not in Jackson's mind.

Finally, the part you quote, "Merricat’s crazy house is where writers go when they write, that quiet spot where nothing is ever as peaceful as it seems. It’s where Shirley Jackson went, anyway, and where she stayed". Where writers go when they write, so presumably the meaning is where Jackson went when she wrote, with the following clause telling us it was where she always went when she wrote (even in the light, humorous pieces). Now, "where writers go when they write" is surely open to interpretation: is it a comment about the psychology of writers or a comment about their work, about what they present and how they mean it to strike us? In the context of this review, it seems likely a comment about what writers do in their work: that would fit in with the claim about the presentation of "apparently happy" family life, for example.

What makes that, perhaps, more awkward, is the use of "the scary place that felt like home to her", but perhaps Mr Rafferty thinks that in writing authors inhabit the viewpoint on the world that they're putting down on paper, and that Jackson either was comfortable inhabiting "the scary place" or that she knew she was writing her kind of fiction, when she achieved that viewpoint. I don't say that that is a correct account of how writer's work, but it is surely not to impugn someone's sanity to say that they can comfortably see the disquieting aspects of the world.

If the last paragraph is anywhere close to being correct, it may be that Rafferty also intended to make us think of home as scary place, as he's already identified that as a theme of Jackson's work.

I am not wedded to the idea that everything I've said is correct (or even coherent), but neither can I see the "pathology" in Rafferty's piece.

For what it's worth, the review made me want to read the book.

Now, perhaps, I'll read some of the gossip, and see whether it casts the review in a less favourable light.



Michael Swanwick said...

I really haven't the time to defend my rant (thank you, Eileen) in any detail, so I'll simply say that I stand by what I wrote. "Intelligent men," as Henry Kissinger once wrote to Harvey Pekar, "can disagree." I'll also note that it seems obvious to me that Rafferty didn't much like any of Jackson's work -- a legitimate reaction, of course, but one that made him singularly ill-suited for this particular review.

"A Winter's Tale" was primarily inspired by a showing of Marc Chagall's work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But there's no question I was thinking of Wolfe's prose and imagery when I was writing it. I wasn't writing the story as pastiche, you understand, but trying to achieve the same gorgeous feel as some of Gene's work has.

The larls are descendants of Coeurl in Van Vogt's "Black Destroyer."

Matthew Brandi said...

Intelligent men can disagree, but I fear I don't qualify: I thought Rafferty liked and was praising Jackson's work.

(He certainly persuaded me to put my hand in my pocket for a copy of the collection.)

Perhaps if I stand on my head or view the world only through mirrors, I'll begin to see it aright.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

> "A Winter's Tale" was primarily inspired by a showing of Marc Chagall's work

That makes sense. The moment of suspension between the old year and the new, under a winter sky - that's him all over.

> But there's no question I was thinking of Wolfe's prose and imagery when I was writing it.

Glad I guessed right. Even since I read 'Legions in Time' I've been seeing other writers hidden in your work, whether they're there or not - first Van Vogt, then Zelazny, then a wrong guess of Ian Banks, then Wolfe...

> I wasn't writing the story as pastiche, you understand, but trying to achieve the same gorgeous feel as some of Gene's work has.

Which makes me wonder just how much I understand the word 'pastiche' - is it purely a value judgement on how well you've captured another writer's essence, or is it qualitatively different? Is the implication that only surface elements are being copied?

> The larls are descendants of Coeurl in Van Vogt's "Black Destroyer."

When I was a kid I read *vast* amounts of Van Vogt, and hated every moment of it - but his books were consistently the cheapest SF at the local book exchange, so I had no choice, did I?

As an adult I've learnt to appreciate the strange strength (and looniness) of his writing.

And I'm afraid I'm going to have to gush embarassingly for a moment - 'Legions in Time' made me roar with laughter, and then reread it again and again. Laughter not from it being funny as such, but from sheer delight at proficiency and grace, much as I might laugh to see someone pulling off an impossible skateboard trick.

Ok - enough gushing.

Dan Gambiera said...

Art Is Anything You Can Get Away With

So said St. Warhol. He seems to have gotten away with it so far.

Michael Swanwick said...

A pastiche is an attempt to write a story in the style and manner of a particular writer. I wasn't interested in writing a "Gene Wolfe story." I was just raiding his tool box. Which is actually a bigger compliment to Wolfe than a pastiche would be, when you think on it.

Ironically enough, Dan, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is currently having a show of the Polaroids upon which Warhol based the silkscreen portraits that were his bread-and-butter. So Warhol is poshumously getting away with something he never tried to get away with when alive. Which emphatically proves your point, I think.