Art vs. entertainment. Finally.

First, something from Gertrude Stein:

Then commenced the long period which Max Jacobs has called the Heroic Age of Cubism, and it was an heroic age. All ages are heroic, that is to say there are heroes in all ages who do things because they cannot do otherwise and neither they nor the others understand how and why these things happen. One does not ever understand, before they are completely created, what is happening and one does not at all understand what one has done until the moment when it is all done. Picasso said once that he who created a thing is forced to make it ugly. In the effort to create the intensity and the struggle to create this intensity, the result always produces a certain ugliness, those who follow can make of this thing a beautiful thing because they know what they are doing, the thing having already been invented, but the inventor because he does not know what he is going to invent inevitably the thing he makes must have its ugliness.

Stein, Picasso

I suppose it’s appropriate, and perhaps even artful, that the clearest expositions of artistic process is found in one of the most poorly punctuated essays I’ve read outside a high-school English class. Stein loved commas, but didn’t seem to know where to place them. I love poetry, but don’t know what I’m doing.

We’re both struggling. A perfect relationship.

What Stein is getting at — having had a front-row seat to the cubist drama — is the difference between that which comes first (which is art), and that which follows (which is entertainment). Or, put differently, Stein believes creation is distinct from understanding in the same way that inspiration is distinct from monetization. Her Picasso lived in the space of heroic vision, not in the sense that he believed he had something extraordinary to communicate, but instead something that was indelibly his — something that flowed through him rather than being produced by him.

This Picasso did not want to draw what everybody already saw; he wanted to express what he saw, almost how he saw. That vision, before it became an -ism, looked strange. Dark lines appeared on very warped faces. Nudity was not often ….provocative. While others competed in the realm of representational art, learning their crafts in structures which either applauded or denigrated fidelity to the aesthetics of the time, Picasso created. Not a movement. Something else, something Stein intimates he did not understand.

He put down, as clearly as he could, his focus, and kept moving forward. Later, his vision would be codified. Viewers now, having been trained to see what is suspiciously similar to a two-dimensional representation of (newly emergent) quantum physics, can finally see something more than what had been seen. But only after the artist created a path to a place he couldn’t describe until he got there.

Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

That is, I think, the difference between art and entertainment — and by “entertainment,” I also mean much of academic discourse. Music. Stories. Anything that can be sold. Or claims to have a handle on a world that is constantly moving, but is really a progressively more polished (and boring) version of what is already understood. We read, or watch, or listen to the professionals, those who have perfected the technique of storytelling, or moviemaking, or songs. But — and this is important — we are not really reading, etc., in these mimes anything but ourselves. We’re not really seeing anything but what we’ve already seen.

This is entertainment. And it is fine, good, wonderful. I need to be comforted, every once in a while, by something that confirms my worldview. I can’t be challenged all the time. But it is also comforting, for me, to read that perhaps the value of art likes not in its perfection, but in its ugliness; that the first few sentences we strung together as children were not structurally perfect, but still beautiful to those listening; that I get a thrill out of listening to bands that are finding their way much more often than I do when listening to those that have become masters of their trade; and my best poems, like my best stories, are not the ones that I “techniqued” into perfection (like lectures I’d given a hundred times), but those off-the-cuff moments of honesty that seem ugly and imperfect even as they move.

The truth: I really did enjoy being infuriated at Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs more than applauding Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. And perhaps like Stein, I find more value in one ugly-but-unsettling sketch than I do in a reproduction that has been purified for public consumption. Which is why I love the fact that Stein is more concerned with content than punctuation. She’s repetitive, somewhat unstructured, a little dictatorial. But then she has to be. She creating a new view and all. Hers.


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The Temptation of Fame: Art and Motivation

…or, why writers, like bands, are better before they’re discovered.


So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.” Virginia Woolf

I write because I like the world — as it is — and want to see it, up-close.  I can’t find the world in many people’s books (by and large). The real world seems like a faded copy of a copy in a lot of stories; even the grit is unreal, much too thoughtful to do any damage. I read many stories, everything from University of Iowa grads to porn-pervs, and am largely left with an elevated sense of distance. So much of what “writers” do places their talent front-and-center; what might have otherwise been a quick trip to the park becomes an exposition of (boring) botanical expertise. Why do they have to mention the names of trees —  every tree?  Is that a requirement — authors must wear long, drapy scarves, not know how to say hello in a coffee shop, and know the names of trees? 

What I want is a story I can walk around in, where characters are actually people who have jobs other than “writer,” “teacher,” “bookstore clerk,” or “student”  — and don’t know the difference between beech and magnolia trees. 


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Sappho talks to Love

“Prayer to Aphrodite”

On your dazzling throne, Aphrodite,
sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you:  do not crush me 
with grief

but come to me now — as once
you heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your 
father’s house

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came.  Handsome sparrows
brought you swiftly to
the dark earth,

their wings whipping the middle sky.
Happy with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, Sappho, why have
you called me?

What does your made heart desire?
Whom shall I make love you,
who is turning her back
on you?

Let her run away, soon she’ll chase you;
refuse your gifts, soon she’ll give them.
She will love you, though
unwillingly.”

Then come to me now and free me 
from fearful agony.  Labor
for my mad heart, and be 
my ally.


Greek Lyric Poetry
(Tranlated by Willis Barnstone)

I often wonder: if governments and churches have their way, and our lovely planet is destroyed once and for all; if every human was destroyed, except for maybe two who could read and probably voted for Hillary Clinton; if all that was left was a pile of rubble, stacks of stones upon which were inscribed curiously translatable fragments of our letters and poems: what would those two readers think? What would they make of our thoughts, fragmented in piles? Would they find them beautiful, meaningful, intelligent, perhaps feeling? Or would our words betray the smallness of the age and its people?

Sappho is fragmented. The woman who was once famously described by Plato as the 10th Muse, whose works were, as far as I’ve learned, considered required material for those who wished to consider themselves educated — she was fragmented. Somewhere in the eleventh century, she was destroyed by a church seemingly at the height of its power. The faithful were promised indulgences for destroying Sappho’s words, get-out-of-hell-free tickets for those courageous enough to burn them.

It evidently worked. The poem copied above is, to my knowledge, one of her few surviving works, most of which are extant only because they were copied by scholars in lands the church had little control over. I wonder, still, what was lost — and wonder if my namesake, Pope Gregory VIII, mightn’t be one of the clerics Dante would later condemn to hell in The Divine Comedy. In my humble opinion, he should be.

But like so many beautiful voices, the fragments still testify. They speak — of beauty, love, lust, human desire. They speak in a way that brings me to my better self. Over years and years of teaching, I would pass out this poem with other fragments and ask students: why do you think Sappho was burned? Classic answers work, and are probably effective. There’s the feminist angle, and it is powerful: the Church’s actions are yet another example of silencing women. There’s also the sexual issue (students really tended to center here): Sappho was from Lesbos, and seems to have a rather fluid notion of sexual attraction; therefore, the Church sought the destruction of anything that might lead readers into what was once called “the unconscionable perversion of the Greeks.”

True. Solid. And real. Nothing to discount here. But I’ve been thinking that there might have been another reason for her burning. Sappho was into women, and men, and sex in general; she was honored even though she did not have the genitals required for honor in, well, nearly every culture. But underneath these rational reasons to account for the destruction, I’ve come to think there might be another, more irrational, shadowy explanation of the church’s action: it was terrified by Sappho’s relationship to the divine. To spirit. To inspiration itself.

We’ve been taught to live on our knees. To honor the gods as above us. We imagine divinity as somehow parental, a relationship in which a child is subordinate to those who came before. We exist as an act of grace, and as such have no right to expect anything. Inspiration in this model doesn’t come to us when we call; it comes to us when it chooses, when we need instruction, when deemed necessary for our edification.

That’s not Sappho. Sappho’s relationship with Aphrodite is not as child to parent (though the goddess is honored with golden description). If anything, Sappho is more like a sister to Aphrodite — and perhaps even more than a sister. Notice it is the goddess who comes to Sappho, who leaves her house when Sappho calls. She doesn’t have to; she wants to. She becomes, effectively, Sappho’s servant — her loving, caring servant, asking her what she wants. Wow.

And then she goes further: she says, look, I’ll do this for you…but it won’t produce what you want. AND THEN LEAVES THE DECISION TO SAPPHO! Wow! No pat on the head, no refusal “in the interest of good judgement,” but instead “I trust you.”

A god who trusts us. A Muse who rushes when we call. Who lets us be the guide. And, probably importantly, doesn’t need to work through institutions (that have a penchant towards destruction). Sappho imagines — or knows — god as personal. Giving. Trusting. A servant-god. That vision is what the Church tried to destroy.

Makes you wonder what they replaced it with.

Oh, yeah. We don’t have to imagine. But, if I may, we do have to remember.

The path

Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gaugin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work’s possibilities excited them; the field’s complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and produced complex bodies of work that endured.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

After teaching for three decades, I believe this: the only thing that separates the good from the bad is caring — about your students, about your field. Not about the weight of your legacy, and definitely not about product (test scores, “outcomes,” sales). Why? You can’t measure what you love. You can’t even direct it. Love is the absence of measurement; who wants to see the receipt from a child’s gift? Go into a classroom with an outcome in mind, students will know there’s a plot afoot…and only those okay with becoming pawns will succeed.

The teachers I know who love what they do and who they work with are artists; all the rest, drones too afraid to find something else to do. Same thing for writers, and parents, bus drivers and painters: if there’s no love, there’s no art. Just activity accompanied by an agenda.

When life hits hard

When I feel stupid, lost, small:

The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

TH White, Once and Future King

Purpose

Something my mom always used to say: “If I wanted to be a CEO, I would’ve been a CEO.” It wasn’t an arrogant statement; it was an acknowledgement that nothing about the life of a CEO appealed to her. She wanted to be a mom, and she was quite proud of telling anyone who would listen that they could do whatever they wanted, but for her, mom-hood was it.

So I’ve been thinking about why I write. In this hyperlinked world, it’s easy to lose track — or it’s easy for me to lose track. But it’s important to remember what writing feels like, and how that feeling has motivated every twist and turn of my life.

It’s not me. It’s the words. It’s the way words flow together, connecting and building and becoming things. I’m sure other writers have had this experience, when you go to change one line of a poem/essay/letter of recommendation and find yourself having to change other lines because to pull on one thread means something else becomes misshapen and you want it to be beautiful so you work and work to make it that way. I imagine it’s like painting, or like Bob Ross’ paintings. He’d always want to add a tree to what I thought was a finished picture. I’d yell at the screen Don’t. I’d get physically agitated. But it always worked out, and that’s not the point anyway. He worked the painting until it was done. Until it was done.

That’s the way I feel when I’m working on a story. I’m not thinking about publication, or what the story might do for me. I’m thinking about how I can make it flow. When I get lost in that desire — to create something whole, as even violent stories and poems can be — when I’m secondary, serving the lines rather than them serving me, that is where I feel at home, and have for as long as I can remember. It’s the words, the piece, spoken or written. I’ve been blessed with credit, but the only thing I’ve ever cared about was whether I did the words justice. “Did you like it?”

That and when the desire to promote myself rises, bad shit happens.

Journal, 16 January 2020

Woolf on Purpose

A Room of One’s Own

For my belief is that if we live another century or so — I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals — and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own;  if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think;  if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality;  and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view;  if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.  Drawing her life from the lives of  the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born.  As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible.  But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.

A Room of One’s Own