Monday, January 7, 2008
In Search of Art
What is art?
No idea, really - though I think it would take an extremely expansive conception of "art" to make the term cover anything I've ever done. But maybe, one way to think about art is this:
Maybe it is the revelation of things that were there all along - even the most important things that were there all along - but which we hadn't noticed before (like a microscope or a telescope, or "X-ray vision might do); and maybe also it can be the creation of a kind of an alternative "world" which is intelligible to us, yet unlike any other world with which we are familiar in its "rules" and norms. Just a few examples...
On this depths of insight business...what about Tolstoy? I do think that "Anna Karenina" is probably the greatest novel ever written - the insights into the minds and souls of each character ring so true, that reading it is almost overwhelming. The day I finished reading it was one of the saddest days of my life. (Homer is another author who perfectly captivates you, and blows your mind with just how deeply and truly he explores human nature...How could these authors have been mere humans?).
Or, what about the paintings of Norman Rockwell? (Cue reverie) I used to spend hours staring at his paintings, collected in a coffee-table anthology, as a kid, just savoring the whole "story" I could imagine behind the scence..and I always felt like I knew just what had happened leading up to the scene, just how the characters were feeling, and what would happen after...
There are so many insightful, enriching Rockwell paintings - ones that seem to "deepen" you instantly. What about "Girl at Mirror"? Isn't that perfect? Doesn't that just totally give you a sense of what it must be like to be a girl at that age, experiencing those first inklings of womanhood and insecurity and wonder? What about "Breaking Home Ties"? Or "New Kids in the Neighborhood", painted during the first wave of American racial integration? Art critics hardly paid any attention to Rockwell at a time when they were wetting their panties over vainglorious garbage from the likes of Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, and Barnett Newman, and it's really a shame. Thank God in the past fifteen years he has finally gotten his due from contemporary critics (the old cranks all had to die out first, obviously. Good riddance!).
What about the other criterion: an unfamiliar, even strange world, with rules and norms unlike any we know, but which are intelligible, or even comforting, to us?
One classic example of this for me is Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" - though perhaps it takes early exposure, as with language, to develop a real grasp of the thing. There is something completely bizarre, when you think about it, about a beagle as a World War I flying ace, a talking school building, or a kid (Charlie Brown) developing a rash on the back of his head in the shape of baseball stitches, making sense to us. Yet they do make sense, like so many other strange little features of the strip...things make sense in that world, that really don't make sense anywhere else - and we don't even notice, so fluent do we become in that world. Even the humor only works within the bizarre context of the strip.
Other examples come to mind: a lot of the Queen stuff, for one trivial example. "Bohemian Rhapsody" - who else could have pulled it off? From who else would something that bizarre have "made sense"? What about the lyrics of Morrissey? Certainly with "The Smiths", Morrissey created a whole little cosmos of morality and meaning - senses of irony and tragedy and comedy and right and wrong and love and hate, that seemed coherent and believable in that world.
What about the poetry of William Blake? Even leaving aside the freak-out mythology of "The Four Zoas", the poems in "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" form an intoxicating world unto themselves...and when we emerge from it back into the real world, we are never quite the same. (Who could be after reading about his "little black boy" [the chimney sweep], or his "poison tree", or his little lambs and burning tigers?).
Something similar happens in Wes Anderson movies. "The Royal Tennenbaums" doesn't have one character in it which acts anything like any human I've ever known; yet they are all immediately intelligible...and just..."make sense" on their own terms, and within the skewed "world" of the movie. But in no other. And I love it.
Wait a second - is anyone actually reading this?