Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action by J.F. Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I sometimes hear critics decry artists as being “indulgent” when they do something they love that isn’t popular with said critics. I recall the one season of American Idol that I watched (the one where Adam Lambert should have won) wherein one of the early contestants was called “Indulgent” for singing what I thought was a not terrible rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”. I’ve been similarly accused and, in fact, used said accusation in my writer’s bio from time to time. You see, I don’t care if I’m viewed as indulgent. I write because I like to write. Some publishers happen to have liked what I’ve written and have published some of my work. Pardon my flippancy (or don’t), but . . . get over it.
Those who have spent any time with me in person know that I’m not so bold in person. I’m a pretty nice guy, sometimes a bit too deferential. But when it comes to my writing and my reading tastes, I am my own man. Writing is my drug. MY drug. Your drug may be different, and your experience with writing may be (and should be) different. It should be your own. All art should be your own because it is your interface with art that matters, not the art itself. The object that elicits the feelings within you, the emotional and intellectual connection, the reaction, will never be the same for another person. Nor should it be.
Here we have one of the central points of J.F. Martel’s “treatise, critique, and call to action”: Art is different for every person, while artifice is intended to engender the same reaction from each person who encounters it. Art is about expression, with the viewer taking an active role in interpreting the meaning of the object/picture/performance, while artifice is about communication, with the viewer taking the passive role of receiving the message which the deliverer wishes to inject into his or her heart or mind. One is a complex symbol open to many different interpretations, while the other is a sign pointing to an ideology to which the creator wants to assign one true meaning:
The moment we reduce a work of art to its references to other things, as with statements such as “Kafka’s Trial is a story ‘about’ modern bureaucracy” or “Fargo" is a film ‘about’ the corrupting influence of money,” we risk losing sight of what art alone can do, because we are effectively turning it into something that can be deciphered . . . a work of art is not ‘about’ any one definitive thing. Captain Ahab isn’t “just” a man obsessed with a whale any more than Moby Dick is “just” a story about whaling and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ahab and his obsession are inseparable from one another. He is formed by his drive to kill the white whale – and cannot exist apart from it. Nor is Ahab’s preoccupation with hunting down Moby Dick a generic characteristic that, in his particular case, happens to be directed at a large sea mammal. Rather, his obsession is itself inseparable from Moby Dick; it is an aspect of the whale as well as an aspect of Ahab. The madness at the heart of Melville’s story becomes an abstract “character trait” only once we have extracted it from its specific context, stripping it of its singularity and generalizing it into a psychological opinion . . . the hunter, the hunt, and the hunted constitute an indissoluble system, each part of which exists by virtue of the force exerted by the others.”
The need to dissect and dissemble art into its constituent parts, while laudable in academic circles, does, to some degree, rob one of the mystery of discovery that one feels when encountering a moving piece of art for the first time. As an undergraduate, I studied Humanities with a history emphasis. I learned how to examine art, music, dance, theater, drama, architecture, and cinema in historical context, but always with a bias toward one school of philosophy or another. The intent was that we students would become exposed to and possibly even facile in criticism of various forms. I spent several good years of my life doing this and, while I am grateful for the intellectual exercise (and actually enjoyed it, to some extent), I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when, one summer, I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes and Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (followed by The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series) after a particularly grueling semester of Marxist and Objectivist analysis of several works of art and literature. It took a week or so to deprogram from the academic rigor of that semester, but when I did, and when I read the books without any preconceived analysis, I felt . . . free! And, strangely, when I did have the analytical devil whisper over my shoulder, my thoughts “uncoiled” quite naturally. Maybe I had just been indoctrinated, I don’t know. But I was able to enjoy the fruits of my studies when I let myself relax and enjoy the art itself, first and foremost. My sense of mystery returned to me as I let these works unfold on their own terms, without the need for analysis.
As Martel notes:
Astonishment has an intellectual as well as an emotional component - in it, the brain and the heart come together. Far from distracting us from the strange and the uncanny in life, the astonishment evoked by great artistic works puts them square in our sights . . . the world is not what we thought it was: something hidden, impossible to communicate . . . [is] clearly expressed in the work.
That aesthetic astonishment (which, I will note, is also often felt by the artist while in the act of creation) is the “drug” I seek in either bringing art to life or engaging with the art of another. While I appreciate the careful analysis and dissection of a work (watch me at a museum – I’m the guy the guards keep an eye on because I want to get nose-close to the painting to see the individual strokes), I also realize that the appreciation of art is not a scientific endeavor. Scientific thinking can never explain the magic I felt, for example, when I first heard Kronos Quartet play live, or when I saw my first Redon painting in-person or when I first read A Clockwork Orange. It cannot tell me why I loved these things and why they moved me inside, why they created such a strong emotional and intellectual response.
”Why?” is a problem science can’t lick; in fact, the very nature of science prevents it from even framing the problem. What science does – and does beautifully – is to enrich the mystery by revealing ever deeper layers of the physical universe, which becomes more puzzling with each new discovery. Any adequate response to the mystery of existence must be poetic, for only the poetic can take on the “why.” If poetic answers are always figurative, never literal, it is because no sooner has the question of being been raised than we leave the world of determinate things to travel in a far stranger country.
This strange country is where the artist lives and thrives. It is of little use to ask me why I love the aforementioned pieces. And, in fact, it’s more than a little distracting from my enjoyment of the piece. What matters is that startling moment of revelation, that twist of the brain and heart that sends a thrill of excitement or dread or any other unanticipated feeling response that the art invokes in me.
Not to wax overly meta-, I present the following quote from Martel’s own work as an example of something that struck me on a deep level. Now, keep in mind that Poe’s poem, “The Raven” is an old favorite. It is also the first poem that my daughter memorized (the entire thing – as a nine year old, no less!) and that she recites, even as an adult, around Halloween. Now, with that in mind, read this seemingly innocuous quote:
At the literal level, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1845) features a bleak November night, a black bird, and a dead woman – only this and nothing more.
SWOON! Do you see what he did there? If not, go back and read the poem. Then read that quote again. It’s an esoteric twist that I had not at all expected. I almost shed a tear at this. Why? That’s my secret, my experience, involving my relationship to reading, writing, and my daughter. I can’t explain it. Either you feel it or you don’t.
And if you don’t feel it, that’s fine. But I do. So, indulge me and call me indulgent. This sentence was written for me. At least I choose to take it that way. Martel encourages the profound idea that one should engage a work of art as if it was created and meant specifically for you. Or, in the case of those who create art:
. . . this means taking the job seriously enough to pursue the visions that come from within rather than those that are foisted upon us by social pressures, popular taste, and the whims of the market. It means making it our principal task to let the symbol speak through the work rather than trying to speak through the symbol. We need to revive the ancient idea of art as a holy madness in which one is guided by external forces. Only thus can we bring forth what we have never seen, yet desperately need to see.
This is what I seek when I write. Call it indulgent. I call it art. No apologies.
For those interested in more of J.F. Martel’s musings, I cannot recommend his podcast (along with Phil Ford) Weird Studies strongly enough. It has quickly climbed to the top of my list of favorite podcasts and never fails to satisfy, no matter what the specific subject matter. Please give it a listen!
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