Monday, March 5, 2012

The Wonders of Art

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a student about an experience I had a few years ago.

I had gone to a reading by an at-that-time relatively unknown writer, Jonathan Safran Foer. His first book, Everything is Illuminated had achieved relative success, and he was visiting his alma mater, Princeton, to read from his work-in-progress, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

He was glowingly introduced by his former advisor, Joyce Carol Oates, and we all settled in to listen.

It was about a child, a clever and precocious child. Right up my alley: I love children. But then, about a page into the reading, I felt a sinking sense of reluctance. It was clearly about a clever, precocious child, and it was pretty clear he had lost his father on 9/11 and that the plot would more or less revolve around that fact.

I was a little surprised that this was only revealed at the end of the reading and that, at that time, the audience gave a small gasp of shock--this news would involve rethinking everything they had assumed about the clever, precocious child, clearly.

I thought it had been a bit obvious from the beginning, and I left feeling disappointed with the reading in ways that I couldn't quite explain. It isn't that I object to novels about 9/11, but... as I said, I couldn't explain it.

It reminded me of the growing sense of discomfort I had previously experienced over the course of reading Dorothy Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina.

If you haven't read it, I won't spoil it. All I will say is that 1) it is disturbing, if generally well written, and 2) the ending is beyond appalling.

After I told my story, my student suggested that I check out an article by Melvin Jules Bukiet entitled "Wonder Bread."

I was a bit relieved, to say the least. I thought I was the only pessimist out there who felt reluctant to use old-fashioned words like "hokey."  I thought I was the only one who was increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the word "victim" has been increasingly replaced with the sentimentality of the term "suvivor."

Don't get me wrong: I don't object to survivors in any form (except on reality-tv programs). But some events and circumstances are pretty horrific and not easily assimilable--if they ever are or can be.

I'm not sure we do anyone any favors by moving quickly to the notion of being "a survivor."

As Bukiet argues,
In fact, trauma’s never overcome. That’s what defines it. Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center’s gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.

Bukiet's argument reminds me of a 2007 New York Times article by Stephen King, "What Ails the Short Story." King notes,
Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers."
Both Bukiet and King remind me of the work of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu. In works such as The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu notes that, with the rise of capitalism, the market for art and culture has shifted radically.

In Shakespeare's time, for example, artists sought patronage. You had to write or paint or sing to please the king or queen. If you wanted to criticize the ruling powers, you had better be subtle and clever. If you wanted to say what you wanted to say, you had better find a way to do it without upseting too many of the people who might bankroll your work.

With capitalism, Bourdieu argues, the audience and the market for art splits. On the one hand, you can write, paint, sing, act or whatever for "the field of large-scale production." In simpler terms, this "field" is what used to be Oprah's book club: a mass-market audience where you make money on your art because a LOT of people buy it.

Or, Bourdieu argues, you can produce art for "the field of restricted production"--that is, the people-in-the-know. Other writers, critics, and intellectuals, in short.

The problem for the artist, Bourdieu notes, is the implicit but complete separation of the two spheres: if you write to sell, critics and other writers may assume you simply can't be very good.  After all, their entire livelihood is premised on the assumption that they can do or offer or appreciate something that "regular people" can't do or even appreciate.

If you produce art for artists, though, you risk never being able to make a living from your art. There are a limited number of endowments and grants, and competition for that share of the market is fierce.

I'm wondering (dangerous word, I know, but I can think of no other at this point) whether one of the consequences of this intersection is the kind of flattening of moral experience and the artistic self-consciousness that both Bukiet and King observe and decry.

In What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty, Arthur Kleinman notes that "Extraordinary experiences--the end of life, emergencies, extreme social conditions--concentrate the focus of ordinary men and women on what is most at stake for them."

If writers and artists exist to both inspire and amaze us--to show us the beauty and the horror of this concentrated focus so many of us experience--then we cannot afford to lose that concentration in an effort to feel better about ourselves, at any cost.

We cannot simply wonder.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."