Monday, May 12, 2014

But Is It Art?

Will Self got his knickers in a bunch a couple of weeks ago about the death of the novel. Well, the death through lack of sales and public attention of what he considers to be “the novel,” by which he appears to mean “literary novels,” more specifically, “his novels.” I don’t expect you to read the entire diatribe. I couldn’t. If this self-absorbed and condescending essay is any indication of his fiction, then his novels aren’t just dying; they’re committing suicide.

This is, at its core, another self-pitying example of a “literary” writer lamenting a lack of sales and recognition compared to what he considers to be inferior work. As The Beloved Spouse would say, “wah.” To begin such a discussion is to admit defeat. The writers of the past, whose recognition the modern “literary” writer seeks to duplicate, did not, by and large, think of themselves as writing for posterity. They became “literary” after their deaths, because their books outlived them, not because that was the original plan.

Musicians have this debate all the time, though it centers along the lines of, “Why are programs so overloaded with dead composers? Where is the new music?” There is a lot of new (classical) music out there; few want to listen to it, with good reason. Not because it’s bad, but because around a hundred years ago composers started writing for their peers. Not even their peers, really, but those they liked to think of as their peers. A culture grew where an ever-smaller cadre of composers praised music that became ever more obtuse or formulaic in its adherence to arbitrary rules. Music that contained traditional elements (melody, harmony, tonality) was dismissed as “reactionary.”

This is a not uncommon situation in the arts. I was once coerced into a trip to the National Gallery of Art by someone who wished to appear more cultured than she was. (Editor’s Note: I am not claiming to be more cultured than she, just that I make no effort to appear otherwise.) At one point we encountered a painting that looks very much like this (bonus points to anyone who can identify the actual painting; its name escapes me):

Our discussion proceeded along these lines:
Her: What do you think?
Me: Huh?
Her: What do you think it means?
Me: You’re shitting me, right?

I’m a believer in art for art’s sake. I don’t consider my writing to be art—an opinion in which I need not stake out a lonely outpost to defend—I do it for the pleasure and satisfaction of the act, much the way a preschooler is more interested in process than results when finger painting. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with authors/musicians/artists who deliberately create for an audience so far to the right of their perceived bell-shaped curve no one else can understand it, let alone “appreciate” it. Too narrowly self-defining one’s audience guarantees its limits; the creator cannot then reasonably complain about a lack of acclimation.

This is not to say current cultural standards are not deplorable. Not enough people read, or listen to music, or, hell, even think about things beyond what’s right in front of them. This is not a new concept. Just as old ballplayers claim the game was better in their day, the erosion of cultural standards has been lamented since the origins of cultural standards. Here’s the thing: if you want to be popular, create things the general population can get into, and not things you think the general population should get into, if they had a clue. By all means, create those things; just don’t bitch when they’re not popular. No society owes any artist a living, not when there are too many people hanging on by their fingernails.

1 comment:

Dale T. Phillips said...

So right, Dana, he comes across as a whining doofus who's lamenting that he's not seen As Important As He Thinks He Is. Well, if his fiction is like his essay, no surprise that he's not read- obtuse, overblown, in love with his own style over substance.
We working writers worry less about how ponderously important a work is than how good it is. Does it tell a good story by engaging the reader? Then it's going to be accessed more than a bloated, boring 300-page tract on weighty matters. You want to write a "message"? Call Western Union (line courtesy movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, I believe).
I'm certainly not anti-intellectual- in fact, sometimes a bit of a reading snob myself. I read many of the "important" books, because I want to find out for myself why they're considered so. Many are awful, some are good, and some outstanding. I'd like to know what Mr. Self (so aptly named) thinks of John Dos Passos. Passes the "important works" test and yet is compelling reading, even after close to a century.
You want people reading what you consider the Good Stuff? Make it matter to them. Write essays and reviews on the work, tell readers what you see in it, and why that's great. But don't write in a style that talks down to readers, in an effort to make yourself feel more important.