Susan Sontag famously wrote, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” Those were fighting words in 1966, among a certain (probably not so large but then again much larger than it would be now) crowd. “Even more,” she continued, “It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of meanings.”
True enough, but what is the case when art itself becomes the revenge of the intellect upon . . . art?
Thus Origami Boulders, an experiment in creative expressionism that emphasizes the bridges between satire, infrarealism, hyper-realism, post-modernism, modernism, and plain old-fashioned mockery. It is not subtle. In an age when hyperbole has become truth and irony just means “bad luck,” Origami Boulders promises a return to simpler truths. What-you-see-is-what-you-get.
Fine enough, you might say, but where do you draw the line between “simpler truths” and fascism? This is a good question, since much of what is considered fascism is founded upon simple truth. At the same time however, it’s also true that only about ten percent of all simple truths are, in fact, fascistic. The problem is that that ten percent can foreseeably find the backing of an incredibly disproportionate amount of a country’s wealth and power. Here is the linkage between the artist, the slacker, the Tea Partier, and the hipster, “who in fact aligns himself both with the rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”
Dear heavens—but the Origami Boulders were meant, in fact, to smash the conveyors of convention, to drown the purveyors of propriety, and to derail the fornicators of formality. How is it that such a bold experiment could so quickly become turned upon itself until it was nothing more than the opposite of what it intended? Much less than a hollow statement of artistic meaning in an artless world, the Origami Boulders, it would appear to the untrained and unwashed, are little more than tools of their own opposition, indistinguishable in effect from the contemporary Democratic Party. As the man on Ellis Island said to my great-great-grandmother (not that) many years ago, “Welcome to America.”
Pray this shall not be the case and that the stony weight of the Origami Boulders will come crashing down to Earth on November 2, 2010, raining like meteorites and asteroids on the dinosaurs, bringing to an end the rule of claw-toed, semi-feathered metareptiles and giving way to the rise of little birds and all the brilliance of avian plumage and delicacy. Sigh.
America, it seems, has become the revenge of the anti-intellect on democracy. Can we throw more than paper boulders in our defense?
Notes and Credits
Photographs of origami boulders and the artistic process by the author. This work, like everything else in America, is for sale. Please email guidry_z [at] hotmail.com for a price schedule and list of options to tailor Origami Boulders to your specific needs. The fact that there is printing on one side of the sheet of paper used is indeed a meta-critique of Western Society itself, leaving no stone unturned in the artist’s quest for antihistorical self-actualization. I am grateful to Rob Vanderlan, fellow political science graduate student at the University of Michigan, for introducing me to the joys of origami boulder sculpture in 1989.
Susan Sontag’s famous quotation from Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966). I tend to agree with her, so much so that I once paraphrased her statement in a cover letter for an academic position, alleging that social science is the revenge of the intellect on people. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I was never called back on that one. Then again, I also think that Origami Boulders so deeply challenges the very fundamentals of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions that Camille Paglia should invite me to her house for cocktails, though that would be too close to my heart. I’ll keep buying lottery tickets for the better odds. In retrospect, it seems like Sontag’s statement is oddly prescient of Fox News.
A friend of mine told me about a playwriting workshop he attended some years ago. The instructor was David Mamet, and after the lecture someone asked Mamet what made him a great playwright.
“I write plays, and you don’t,” was the reply. David Mamet, it seems, talks like one of his characters.
Write what you know
You can’t be a great artist of any kind—playwright, sculptor, painter, novelist, etc.—if you produce nothing at all. That’s what separates Mamet from those who would like to be writers. It does not, however, separate Mamet from all the other writers who in fact write, whatever anyone thinks of it.
Apart from writing well or competently, writers themselves have little control over many other factors that separate great writing from just plain writing. For the fact is that great writing will never be recognized as such if it doesn’t have a context in which it flourishes and speaks to enough people to make an impact on the world. Great writing itself isn’t a pure quality, forever-set and canonical. What we think of as great writing is shaped as much by the times to which it corresponds as by any inherent qualities of the writing itself. Write what you know, as they say; if you’re in the zeitgeist, the rest will take care of itself.
Paint what you are
Jackson Pollock dared to follow his muse, wherever it led, regardless of what it meant, and he let his technical abilities take him to places other painters couldn’t dream of. In that particular moment—post-World War II United States—his paintings made people see art and, one might argue, the world, differently. His was a singular genius, exercised and exorcised against a cultural backdrop that needed his art to understand itself.
No. 31, 1950
The Pollock room at the Museum of Modern Art, on the fourth floor, is a slide show of singular dedication and focus that seems to culminate in the famed Number 31, which spans an entire wall. From painting to painting, Pollock moves from semi-representational work to increasingly abstract renderings that burrow each time more deeply into his consciousness itself.
Amid the soft footfalls and hushed voices in the room, Allen Ginsberg howls and yells and scratches at the seams of that world, trying to break out. There is my own father huddled in a French Quarter coffee shop with his Aunt Carol, herself a painter, telling her about his poems or talking about art, trying to find some safe, comfortable place to let an idea fly from the heart. Every splatter and spray of paint on that vast canvas is a voice from a world suffocating in Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, tapping on the glass I am, I am, I am …
a woman in an abusive marriage, serving cocktails to some chain-smoking Mad Men caricature
a girl or maybe a wife pregnant with a child she cannot bear to bring into this world
Watson and Crick walking into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, on February 28, 1953, saying that they had found “the secret of life”
The voices blew through the tragedy of Pollock’s own life and the terror of his private demons, inseparable from the age he lived in because he made it so in his work. As Pollock himself put it, “Every good painter paints what he is.”
Sylvia Plath, writing atop a stone wall in England
Does context make the art? It’s a chicken-and-egg question that cannot be answered. It’s impossible for most audiences to enjoy Shakespeare without an interpretation, and an interpretation like Scotland PA is nothing short of wonderful and luminescent of both Shakespeare and modern American culture, as much for the Shakespeare and the Paul Rogers and Beethoven dominated soundtrack as for the send-up of drive-through fast food.
One without the other is a hollow experience—art or context. Pollock helped us understand the times in which he lived, and the resounding verdict on the worth of his work is that with every passing year he continues to reflect and refract his times even more intensely. It’s all there on the canvas: the straight-laced, short-haired, hourglass-figured, white, clean, modern, scientific world of tomorrow epitomized in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair. It’s all there, splattered, fractal, chaotic.
Art becomes art because it helps people to understand their world. It remains art because it continues to do so, over and over again. What makes art great is something that millions of people determine every day, in all their infinitely innumerable actions and words. What makes great art great is not so much its inherent greatness as the fact that it survives at all.
“Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves, we’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
Notes and credits
Photograph of the glass margarita chalice with paint brushes, pens, pencils, etc. against the backdrop of a living room wall by the author.
Photograph of Jackson Pollock, No. 31, at MoMA, taken by the author, July 25, 2010. Find Pollock all over the web. This is a great photograph inspired by Pollock.
Sylvia Plath on a stone wall, from Mortimer Rare Book Room by way of the Amherst Bulletin.
Scotland PA is a wonderful film. See reviews here and here, and whatever they say I recommend it highly.
“… let no mournful yesterdays
disturb thy peaceful heart.”
Ellen M. Huntington Gates, “Sleep Sweet”
“Of the making of many books there is no end,
and in much study there is weariness for the flesh.”
When the glass is empty the writer searches, at times desperately, for some truth or experience to put on the page. The writer writes to make life real. It is an alchemy that turns nothing into something. Without writing, the writer is hollow, small, almost nothing.
When the glass is full the writer becomes like a god, though not so much a god of creation as one who reorders worlds that already exist. The writer recreates what he or she has known in order to say something about it. At the end of the day, it is a gratifying act.
In 1967, Gloria Steinem interviewed Truman Capote for an article that was published in McCall’s. It was a candid interview. She asked him how he would like to be described as a writer and as a person—adding “without false modesty,” just in case. Capote replied with grace and clarity.
“As a writer, that I’m a good artist, a serious craftsman; that my writing gives pleasure in itself, regardless of what I’m writing about. I spend a great deal of time with that object in mind. Because to me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”
Early in his career, Capote was praised for the beauty of his sentences. His prose was impeccable and his writing almost alone brought him into social circumstances the likes of which he never could have dreamed as the model for Dill in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a lonely child of divorce in a small Alabama town.
But Capote flew too close to sun. In a terrific irony—the exception that proves the rule, it seems—Capote’s downfall came when he tried to write what he (thought he) knew. The serialized chapters of his long-awaited novel, Answered Prayers, hewed too closely to the real lives of his New York socialite crowd. Scandalized, Capote’s supposed friends abandoned him and he learned how far, indeed, Monroeville, Alabama, was from New York’s Upper East Side.
Capote had abandoned the “inner music” of his words for a cloying attempt that was less writing what he knew than writing what he both coveted and hated. Such is vanity.
To write is to be like a god, one of those fundamental acts of hubris that always results in a fall, whether in the Garden of Eden or Greek mythology. The “inner music” of Capotean reverie was to Franz Kafka a siren call to vanity and self-worship through the admiration of others. To his close friend and ally, Max Brod, Kafka wrote in 1922—
“Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but a reward for what? Last night it was as clear to me as the catechism learned in childhood that it is a reward for devil worship. This descent to the powers of darkness, the dubious embraces, and all the other things that doubtless occur down below and which we know nothing about up here when we write our stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other kinds of writing, this is only one I know…”
The writer was oblivious to this affliction, mindlessly scribbling away beneath a penumbra of vanity that surrounded the sun itself. Like sex, writing was at once a sensual and gratifying pact with the devil that was utterly essential to living experience—and at the same time, an act that obscured and defamed the very essence of love itself.
“It is the vanity and the hedonism, which flutter around and around either one’s own or another’s form in a ceaseless search for pleasure until in the end, by this constant repetition, a whole planetary system of vanity is created.”
Kafka’s life was filled with deep and vital relationships, with both women and men. His Madonna-whore complex notwithstanding, he knew how to connect with others, recoiling only from those women he thought of marrying. Writing was Kafka’s only salvation, the only thing that made him seem real to himself.
As a writer, however, Kafka was a failure in his own estimation. His work remains for us mainly because his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, famously chose to ignore to Kafka’s request to destroy all the remaining manuscripts, which included his novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.
Prayer, a writerly cup
The photo of the cup of tea at the beginning of this post was given to me by a friend, Maghan Lusk. She is from South Carolina. In 2008-09, she wrote a blog called “[a creative writer’s] life, uncensored.” On the blog, she wrote about writing, managing seamlessly to intersperse her own experiences with topical matter. Her writing and point of view suggested a very thoughtful person who took the time to understand why people were doing what they did, rather than judging them and tossing off opinions.
In 2009, she shut down her blog to work on her first novel, which she has now completed. Of her desk and cup she wrote—
“When I sit down to write, I make a pot of Ceylon orange pekoe (2 tbsp of loose tea, 1 tbsp of lemon curd, 1 tbsp of honey). And I warm the pot before I add the boiling water – it’s a highly methodical process. I like the color, so I always drink from a glass tea cup. The pot in the back belonged to my mom before she married my dad (27 years ago).”
Before Maghan turned the pot to the support of her writer’s craft, her mother used it to warm the water she soaked her feet with. Behind the pot, on the edge of the chest-of-drawers, is a framed poem, “Sleep Sweet,” by Ellen M. Huntington Gates.
The desk itself is piled high with the artifacts of Maghan’s life and work. In the stack of books are admired pieces, atop which sits Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the much-celebrated novel set in Iowa, in which the Rev. John Ames writes out a family history for his young son. The Reverend’s wife calculated that all the sermons he had written across his life of preaching would come to 67,500 pages of prose, or 225 books by the Rev.’s own calculation, “which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.” In Robinson’s prose, Rev. Ames takes us to a place in writing so much finer and wonderful than Kafka’s, less self-involved than Capote’s, more human and more in touch with the real reasons we write—to reach out to someone else.
“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel that I am with you now, whatever that can mean …”
Feeding the Wolves
There is a famous Cherokee fable that goes like this.
An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Capote fed both wolves, with his life and with his words. He was as destroyed by writing as he was acclaimed for it. The same thing happened to Hemingway. Kafka—and possibly Faulkner—fed the wolves with words alone, leaving their lives to become shambles of unrequited desire.
Sylvia Plath fed both wolves. She fed them with her words and her flesh. She married a man, Ted Hughes, who believed that a writer had the duty to live beyond all morality, to use his or her own life to build the experiences that would come to life in words.
To be an artist is a dangerous thing. It is a special role, a special calling that cannot be resisted. From the beginning of time—Lascaux to the Bible to Pynchon and Picasso and Joe Strummer—artists have helped us know who we are and how we live. Some of them handle the role better than others.
Notes and Credits
I owe thanks to Maghan Lusk for sharing her photos and story for this posting, as well as for insightful correspondence over issues of writing, spirituality, and living in the Deep South over the last year or so.
Capote’s interview was by Gloria Steinem, “‘Go Right Ahead and Ask Me Anything.’ (And So She Did) An Interview with Truman Capote.” McCall’s 95 (November 1967), 76-77, 148-52, 154.
Kafka from: Letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922, in Franz Kafka, I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings, ed. N Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1974), p. 223. An interesting source for Kafka information (though not the only one I used, of course) and condominiums in Miami can be found here.
Gilead quotation: p. 19 of the Picador, 2004, edition.
The Cherokee fable of the two wolves is widely known. The version posted here was taken from a website called “First People, The Legends.” The story is the much the same in its various posting around the Web.
The photographs of books were taken by the author, on his own desk. Disclosure: I have not read Gilead, but I will do so shortly. I have not read In Cold Blood, but I saw the movie with Robert Blake a long time ago on late-night tv. I have not seen the movies of Capote’s life, neither Toby Jones’s nor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. The copy of In Cold Blood in the photograph was found on the sidewalk in Park Slope one day. I have read much of Kafka’s writing—novels, stories, and letters, and I saw the movie.
E. Things that we never would have done had we known better, but that we must live with to the end of our days.
F. Wonderful things and great discoveries that never would have happened had we known better.
Note: E/F will be a recurring feature of truth and rocket science. If you have a half-glass photo to share, or want to create one, send it to me at jguidry.7 AT gmail DOT com and I’ll use it in a future posting, with full credit to you. Make sure that you tell me the story behind the photo, including the contents of the glass, in the following manner . . .
Credit: This standard Williams Sonoma pint glass is half-filled with Hoegaarden whitbier. Its taste is semi-tart and well-accented with a slice of lemon. It sits on a small faux-marble coffee table, in front of a love seat futon that was found on the sidewalk in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Sixth Avenue b/t Garfield and Carroll, on a spring day in 2008. As the mattress was clean and the frame in almost perfect shape, we took it home because we needed a sofa. Ah, providence.
a comfortable living room, for people and cats
The paintings were acquired in Bahia, Brazil in the summer of 1998. The artist signs himself “Alberto,” and they are of mixed media, acrylic paint with splatters of sand and swatches of cloth added for texture. I don’t recall the name of the shop, but I could certainly find it in a minute upon return to the city.
The coffee table was given to me by a friend to hold for her while she moved back to Rockford, Illinois to live in the barn on the family farm while writing her first three books. One day she may want the table back, but until then, it’s here.
Pixie, ace mouser
Pixie, the cat, is about five and a half years old. She came into the family in February of 2005, for the specific purpose of eradicating the mice that had beset us in the fall of 2004. As I told Duke, Pixie was “a technician,” and she proved a very effective one: in her first 14 days, she took out 13 mice, and we never saw another one.